Coconut Oil – What’s the deal?

by (Exercise Physiologist)

Coconut oil is everywhere right now and is often accompanied by some pretty big claims.

  • Controlling sugar cravings
  • Boosting the immune system
  • Good for the skin
  • Managing diabetes
  • Easing digestion
  • Controlling weight
  • It is good for your cholesterol levels
  • Life changing (warning- this particular claim always raises a red flag!)

Are these claims warranted or has the humble coconut fallen victim to the “fad diet industry” money making machine? The research is conflicting to say the least! However there currently does not seem to be enough good quality scientific evidence to back the majority of the claims plastered on coconut products.

What is it?

Coconut oil is literally extracted from coconut flesh so that you get only the fat component, not any of the other good stuff like the fibre, protein or vitamins and minerals in the rest of the whole coconut. It has been used as a cooking oil in parts of India, South Asia and in many tropical parts of the world for many years.

It’s high in saturated fat… but is the saturated fat in coconuts bad?

Despite the perception that all things plant must be better for us, oil made from coconuts actually contains a whopping 90-93% saturated fat. Saturated fats, usually the dominant type in animal foods, are generally regarded as the “baddies” when it comes to heart disease. In recent times this perception has been reexamined and we now know that not all saturated fats are the same. Coconut fat is extremely rich in a particular saturated fat called lauric acid. This is a 12-carbon chain fatty acid, putting it at the low end of what are called the long chain fatty acids. Unlike the longer chain saturated fats, lauric acid has a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol profiles (increasing levels of “good cholesterol” or HDL). However with this there is also research that suggests the fatty acids found in coconut oil do raise LDL – bad cholesterol – as do other saturated fats, like butter and fatty meat.

It’s fat burning!

Coconut oil also has small levels of medium chain (8 and 10 carbon chain) saturated fats and these are burned more readily as fuel in the body than other fats. This is why it is sometimes promoted as being a “fat burning superfood”. This doesn’t mean they are necessarily “fat burning”, it just means you need to create a negative energy balance by eating less calories and increasing physical activity. When you do create this negative energy balance the medium chain saturated fats will be burned first. A healthy diet and exercise is also “fat burning” and have far more evidence to stand on than medium chain triglycerides.

Additional claims

There is some interest and evidence to show that coconut oil may have anti-microbial and anti-viral effects. However whether this has any practical relevance as part of your diet is as yet unknown.  The other claims like “anti-ageing, easing digestion, controlling sugar cravings” do not have a wealth of evidence at this stage to warrant such claims. It’s more likely to be the healthier diet and lifestyle changes that make skin look better and control sugar cravings, not the particular element of coconut oil products.

They eat it in Asia where there is a lower rate of cardiovascular disease right?

Interesting research from Professor Mark Wahlqvist, director of the Asia Pacific Health and Nutrition Centre at Monash University has looked into the diets and rates of heart disease on populations who have a diet naturally high in coconut products and found that when their whole diet is taken into consideration, coconut is actually a benign and possibly even helpful component.

The question then begs to be asked, is this due to the coconut itself or to other diet and lifestyle factors? His research has found that it wasn’t the amount of fat (either saturated or unsaturated) in their diet that made the difference between a healthy or unhealthy heart, it was how much meat, eggs, sugar, carbohydrates and cholesterol. People with heart disease tended to eat more meat, eggs and sugar, and have higher intakes of protein and cholesterol, but they had lower intakes of soy products and carbohydrate such as rice and cereals. Most importantly, coconut consumption as flesh or milk was the same for both the healthy or unhealthy people.

Wahlqvist sums it up nicely quoting “Chances are, if you’re using coconut milk, you’re going to be cooking something with plenty of fresh vegetables and perhaps some chicken, fish or tofu. If you use fat-reduced coconut milk, whatever saturated fats you get from the coconut will be balanced by all the benefits you get from the hefty dose of vegetables and other ingredients.”

Summary

So in summary, the evidence is conflicting!! At this stage there doesn’t seem enough evidence to support the majority of the claims that are being promoted. Coconut oil is better for you than other oils high in trans fat yes, but is nowhere near as good for you as olive oil that contains vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and phytochemicals and that is also backed by a large amount of good quality scientific evidence.

Used in moderation it is a tasty and aromatic oil, a perfect addition to a fish (full of omega 3 fats) and vegetable (full of vitamins, fibre, minerals, antioxidants, phytochemicals, low energy density) curry. Used in excess it is a very energy dense product and can contribute to weight gain and increased bad cholesterol levels. Used as a supplement to good health or an addition to smoothies, cereals or salads, is not backed by scientific evidence but in moderation won’t kill you.

And now for the punch line!

The main point I want to conclude with comes back to the point that a well balanced diet with more of the right foods and less of the wrong foods, combined with regular physical activity is your best bet for good health. Sound familiar? It’s usually the advice Accredited Practising Dietitians give when questioned about the newest “superfood” or “fad diet”. We give this response because it is the best response.

The best “diet plan” to follow can be found in the Australian Guide to Healthy Eating. The biggest advantage of these guidelines is that they don’t just take into consideration the diet-disease relationship of an isolated condition as so many “Superfoods” fixate on, for example “Coconut oil and fat burning”. They base the guidelines on over 1000 highly reliable and credible scientific studies for an array of disease prevention and health optimization target areas. For example, cancer, heart disease, dementia, obesity, osteoarthritis and osteoporosis, vitamin deficiencies, gut health and immune function…the list goes on and on!

For more information you can find them here

http://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/guidelines

Alternatively book in to see me, Alice, an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Personal Trainer. Accrediting Practising Dietitians are the leaders in evidenced based nutrition and can assist you with your health and wellbeing goals.

Call Elwood on (03) 9531 0909 to book a consultation.

by (Exercise Physiologist) on 26th June 2014 |

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