Coconut oil requires caution

Last week I was enjoying lunch with friends when the topic of conversation turned to coconut oil. One of my diet-conscious mates was describing a dish she recently prepared using the tropical fat. Everyone at the table was terribly impressed; what a healthy alternative to canola oil or olive oil. To say that I didn’t share my friends’ enthusiasm is putting it mildly.
For some time now, the subject of coconut oil has been setting off my crap detector: an intuitive device that’s been honed from years of observing the worthy-of-consideration to downright ludicrous trends in food and nutrition. 
When I began my undergraduate nutrition degree in the early 1980s, coconut oil and the other tropical fat, palm oil, were well established as the beloved fats of food manufacturers. Their creamy texture, long self-life and low cost made them ideal for producing highly-processed foods.
But by the end of that decade, about the time I started practicing as a dietitian, tropical oils experienced a major fall from grace. Nutrition research revealed that these fats were linked to elevated blood cholesterol levels and, as a consequence, could increase our risk of developing heart disease. 
Now, more than 20 years later, coconut oil can be found in many natural and health food stores where shop owners ask a pretty penny for products that claim to cure a plethora of health ailments.
Most of the positive health effects associated with coconut oil are based on anecdotal evidence; there isn’t a lot of published research. But we do know that the once-held belief that saturated fat--whether from animals or tropical oils--raised blood cholesterol levels and increased our risk of heart disease, isn’t entirely true.
Today it’s clear that the effects of saturated fat on blood cholesterol levels varies from person to person. Genetics, body weight, gender and lifestyle (such as diet, exercise, alcohol consumption and tobacco use) need to be taken into consideration.

photo by Valentyn Volkov via istockphotos.com
According to Dietitians of Canada, there is some scientific evidence that consuming coconut oil doesn’t raise our total and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels to the same extent as butter. However, coconut oil may increase our blood cholesterol levels to a greater extent than vegetable oils. 
All fats and oils, whether we’re talking about olive oil, butter, walnut oil or coconut oil, are comprised of a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids. While coconut oil is a highly saturated fat, it doesn’t appear to worsen or improve cholesterol levels in most people. 
This finding is supported by epidemiological studies that show people who consume high coconut fat diets--such as Polynesians--tend to have low cholesterol levels.
Although adding moderate amounts of coconut oil in the context of a healthy diet is unlikely to significantly affect our heart health, we still need to practice caution; this fat’s effects on cholesterol aren’t fully understood.
So far there’s absolutely no scientific proof that coconut oil strengthens our immunity, improves digestion, gets rid of acne, or prevents heart disease, arthritis, and other chronic diseases. 
Compared to other fats, the body uses a few more calories to process the tropical oil because of its chemical structure. But any calorie-burning effect is minimal at best; coconut oil is by no means a weight-loss aid.

published in the Vancouver Courier, October 21, 2011

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