Note to Reporters: The following column was written by Melissa Wdowik, an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Anderson Nutrition Center.
Part of the traditional Southeast Asian diet, coconut oil has taken our country by storm. It is sometimes hailed as a super food and sometimes criticized as a fad.
What is the truth behind this tropical food?
Coconut oil is a fat taken from coconut flesh. Coconut oil comes from dried coconut treated with chemicals to produce the oil, which is used in movie theater popcorn, coffee creamer and candy. Virgin coconut oil is a more recent alternative: this fat is extracted from coconut meat in a multistep process. Both contain saturated fat.
Saturated fat is the “bad” fat that raises total cholesterol and LDL — or bad cholesterol. But not all saturated fats are created equal. Sixty percent of coconut oil fat is composed of medium chain triglycerides, also called MCTs, while other oils contain mostly long chain triglycerides, known as LCTs.
MCT are metabolized differently than LCTs; they are transported directly from the digestive tract to the liver, where they are used as fuel. They are less likely to be deposited into fat tissue. This makes coconut oil a popular weight loss product.
But is it effective? Only if you watch your calories and keep them low – coconut oil calories are still stored as fat once your body’s fuel needs are met. At 120 calories per tablespoon, nobody is going to lose weight by adding this to their typical diet. Bottom line: skip the coconut oil, eat less and move more.
Let’s look at other recent claims about this oil.
Alzheimer’s disease? A popular book describes a man whose Alzheimer’s symptoms improved dramatically after eating coconut oil (and MCT oil) daily. Theoretically, the Alzheimer’s-diseased brain can use ketones produced from MCTs to replace the glucose it is no longer able to use, but the few studies done have been poorly designed and inconclusive. Bottom line: more research is needed.
Heart disease? Research participants fed coconut oil or pure MCTs showed an increase in LDL and total cholesterol, but also an increase in HDL (good) cholesterol, which offers protection against heart disease. Unfortunately, an increase in HDL when LDL also increases probably does not lower the risk of disease. Bottom line: vegetable oils such as olive oil are still recommended because they increase HDL while also lowering LDL.
Best oil for cooking? For a vegan or anyone limiting animal products, coconut oil is a tasty butter replacement. For others, it adds a unique flavor to food and can be used instead of shortening for baking. It also gives food a unique texture and cooking characteristics. Bottom line: enjoy coconut oil in small amounts if you like the taste or texture, but be wary of its touted health benefits.
Take a cue from the Pacific Islanders who consume coconuts on a regular basis: enjoy coconut oil as part of a diet that is low in sugar, cholesterol and salt, high in fiber, plant foods and fish, and part of a physically active lifestyle.
Melissa Wdowik is an assistant professor at Colorado State University in the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, and director of the Kendall Anderson Nutrition Center.