Healthy Eating

Changing attitudes about coconut oil

Coconut oil in solid formDepending upon who you listen to, coconut oil is either one of the most unhealthy foods that you can possibly consume, or it is a superfood, guaranteed to bestow almost miraculous health benefits.

Health agencies and organizations such at the United States FDA and the American Heart Association recommend very limited consumption of coconut oil, due to its high saturated fat content. Dietary saturated fat has been linked to an increased risk for heart attack, some types of cancer, diabetes, and other health problems.

But, in recent years, there has been a re-evaluation of the dangers of saturated fat, and, specifically, of coconut oil. It turns out that coconut oil has a unique fat profile, and is one of the richest natural sources of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs), in the form of lauric acid. Because MCFAs are smaller molecules, they are easier to digest, putting less strain on the pancreas and liver, and are immediately converted by the liver to usable metabolic energy, instead of being converted to body fat.

Multiple human and animal studies have shown that coconut oil consumption results in weight loss, due to the rise in the metabolic rate. Most of the weight loss is abdominal or visceral fat, which is correlated with increased heart disease and Type II diabetes. So, coconut oil results in not only a cosmetic improvement (a smaller waist circumference), but decreases your risk of concomitant conditions from the belly fat.

Saturated fat consumption has long been believed to increase serum cholesterol levels, and to therefore increase the risk of coronary & peripheral vascular disease. But, in human studies using virgin coconut oil, the cholesterol profiles actually improved, with increased HDL levels and an improved LDL/HDL ratio.

Melissa Clark, New York Times food writer, in her superb article Once a Villain, Coconut Oil Charms the Health Food World (March 1, 2011), captures the changing scientific and popular perceptions of coconut oil. Clark quotes Thomas Brenna, professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, who is an expert on coconut oil: “Most of the studies involving coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil…Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective. And maybe it isn’t so bad for you after all…I think we in the nutrition field are beginning to say that saturated fats are not so bad, and the evidence that said they were is not so strong.”

Clark extols the virtues of coconut oil for all types of cooking, including baking, sauteing, and roasting. “I may never go back to olive oil for roasting sweet potatoes, not when coconut oil enhanced their caramelized flavor while adding a delicate coconut essence…But my favorite new way to use coconut oil is for popcorn…of course, the movie theaters knew it all along.”

The popular Dr. Oz, who champions conventional medical attitudes and practices on his daytime television show, recently advocated the daily consumption of coconut oil, promising his viewers that coconut oil will help them lose weight, improve their skin, and treat stomach ulcers.

Readers of this blog are familiar with my ongoing weight struggle. But I have increased my fat intake, in the form of coconut oil, because of its weight-loss benefits. I love the way everything cooks with coconut oil, and I love the way it makes food taste. Just don’t scrimp on the quality. Make sure you are buying virgin, organic coconut oil, like the one below. Please, let me hear about your experiences with this misunderstood, under-appreciated food.

Nutiva Coconut Oil

Nutiva, the coconut oil I buy, $10.99 @ Amazon

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About James Bedsole

James is a Boston-based freelance journalist and medical professional. Raised in Memphis, TN, James moved to Massachusetts in the 1980's and never plans to leave.

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