In light of last week’s review released by the American Heart Association, condemning saturated fats and specifically coconut oil, I decided to share a few thoughts on the polyunsaturated fats they do recommend. We are a society still suffering the repercussions of a study from the 1950s that made us fear saturated fat despite its inaccuracies and subsequent studies that have proven quality saturated fats, such as coconut oil, to be healthy.
Coconut oil took all of the heat thanks to USA Today’s headline “Coconut oil isn’t healthy, it has never been healthy.” Good thing coconut oil can tolerate high heat… Coconut oil is well tolerated by most everyone but it is up to you to determine the amount that works best for you. This is true of every food; tolerating a small amount does not make it unhealthy. I personally eat 2-4 tablespoons of coconut oil every day and maintain stable weight and energy.
It’s important to note the context in which coconut oil, or any one food, is eaten. Is it part of a diet rich in vegetables and low in grains and sugars? If so, coconut oil supports the absorption of phytonutrients from those vegetables as well as healthy heart cells. If eaten with a diet high in sugars and grains (refined or otherwise), coconut oil may amplify overall inflammation in the body. Bottom line: coconut oil increases absorption of whatever you are eating so choose wisely and healthfully.
Quality is a key aspect of every bite of food you pop in your mouth but this is especially true of fats as poor quality fats, such as vegetable oils, can have a negative effect on you health. Coconut oil is a prime example of quality fat, no matter that it is saturated.
AHA claiming that saturated fats, including those from coconut oil, are unhealthy and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) is either false or at least not the whole truth. Many studies have shown coconut oil in a positive light regarding CVD as it supports increased HDL cholesterol (“good cholesterol”), lowered cholesterol and lowered triglyceride levels.
The review suggests to “replace [saturated fat] with polyunsaturated vegetable oil,” which clearly shows the AHA promotes the consumption of vegetable oils. However vegetable oils, specifically soybean, canola, sunflower, corn, cottonseed, rapeseed, safflower, grapeseed are not healthy solely because they contain the word vegetable. In fact, they are likely damaging to your health especially when heated.
Vegetable oils are heavily refined and often genetically modified. These oils are unstable as they contain mainly polyunsaturated fats. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oils are the food industry’s answer to longer shelf life, creating trans fats. The production process of vegetable oils, as described in Deep Nutrition by Catherine Shanahan, could turn anyone off of them:
“One of the initial steps in making vegetable oil involves the use of hexane, a component of gasoline. If you were to get up close and catch the stench of the initial extract, you might never imagine it could be cleaned up. Making these stinky oils palatable requires a degree in chemical engineering: it takes twenty or so additional stages to bleach and deodorize the dark, gunky muck.”
While I do have a degree in chemical engineering, I am so much happier sharing why NOT to eat these oils rather than making them for mass consumption.
Coconut is the richest food source of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) or medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), named medium because the fat molecule contains 6-12 carbons. MCTs are excellent for supporting heart health but also improving cognitive health, including brain function, memory and decision making – even in those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Coconut oil is the best fat to consume when you are restoring digestive health as it is digested differently than long chain fatty acids (LCFAs). First, enzymes in the saliva and then gastric juices break down MCFAs, therefore requiring less pancreatic enzymes. This greatly reduces the strain on the digestive system – the most energy intensive process in the body. Any time you can relieve strain on the digestive system, you will experience greater energy.
Coconut oil is antifungal, antiviral and antibacterial – a potent powerhouse! Coconut oil contains caprylic acid, which is great at combating an overgrowth of the yeast, Candida albicans, a very common reason we feel vaguely unwell. It also contains lauric acid, which can help fight infections and clear up acne-ridden skin. MCTs are usually sent directly to the liver making them less likely to be stored as fat.
It is hard not to get frustrated (read: downright angry) when information like this takes the media by storm and continues to muddy the minds of women trying to improve their health. The health and wellness industry unfortunately has to fight so hard to prove its credibility and one hit like this review can create such a setback while many more negative stories about conventional nutrition and medicine are swept under the rug.
I hope this review hasn’t renewed your fear of (quality, saturated) fat but if it has please do some more reading and make an informed decision before cutting it out of your life.
And if you skimmed to the bottom: by all means, include coconut oil in your diet!
*unless you have a negative reaction after consuming it, which is not common but possible