By Vesanto Melina and Brenda Davis
Few foods have been at once maligned and acclaimed as much as coconut oil. Some view it as a notorious health villain, with an even greater concentration of saturated fat than butter or lard. It tops list of foods to avoid in many heart-health programs. At the other end of the spectrum are those who view coconut oil as a fountain of youth, the greatest health discovery in decades. These claim that it can provide therapeutic benefits for cancer, diabetes, digestive disturbances, heart disease, high blood pressure, HIV, kidney disease, osteoporosis, and overweight. So what is the truth? Is coconut oil a health menace or miracle?
Its primary criticism is that over 80 percent of its fat is saturated and thus will increase blood cholesterol levels. The different saturated fats, with varying lengths of carbon chain, do affect cholesterol levels somewhat differently. Yet to reduce coronary artery disease risk, it’s wise to limit saturated fat. The bottom line is that coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol; although its impact is less potent than butter, it still increases risk. Replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated vegetable oils, and to a slightly lesser extent, monounsaturated (olive) oil, will produce far more favorable outcomes.
In many regions where coconut is a dietary staple, rates of chronic disease, including coronary artery disease, are low. Yet benefits seem to apply only when it is consumed along with a diet that is unprocessed and rich in high-fiber plant foods. In Western-style diets laden with white flour, sugar, and fatty animal products, disease rates escalate with or without coconut and its products.
Some fatty acids in coconut, (e.g. lauric acid), have significant antimicrobial properties. Virgin coconut oil also contains protective phytochemicals, including phenolic acids, though these are eliminated in refining. A plus for refined coconut oil is its stability; it is not easily oxidized or otherwise damaged. Plant foods that grow close to the equator have higher proportions of saturated fats, to protect themselves from the ravages of oxidation that occurs in warm temperatures. (Note that in contrast, foods grown in cold climates, such as flax and hemp, generally contain valuable unsaturated fats such as omega-3 fatty acids. The plant needs certain fluids in it to remain liquid, even in very cold temperatures.)
Including some whole plant foods that are high in saturated fat, such as coconut, may be beneficial as these are very stable, with a low risk of oxidation. While we want to keep our total intake of saturated fat low, completely elimination is neither advisable nor possible.
Coconut should be treated like other high-fat plant foods—enjoyed primarily as a whole food. It is loaded with fiber, vitamin E, healthful phytochemicals—plus powerful antimicrobial properties. Its oil can be viewed like other extracted oils: a food with many calories and relatively few nutrients. If you use extracted oils, your best bets are olive oil for stir fries, and flaxseed or hempseed oils for salad dressings.
Base your diet on whole plant foods. Thus for fats, rely on avocado, nuts, olives, and seeds (pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, hemp, chia, ground flax). Shredded coconut can be a lovely addition to many dishes. Lemon tahini dressing is an excellent choice for salads or on baked potatoes or steamed broccoli. If you do use coconut oil, select organic, virgin options and keep intake moderate.