The hype surrounding coconut oil in the media and among health-conscious folk over the past couple of years has been hard to ignore. Considered a staple ingredient of the popular ‘Paleo diet’ and ‘clean eating’ diet trends; hailed as the latest ‘superfood’ aiding weight loss; and heralded with anti-microbial and anti-viral properties – coconut oil has ignited controversial discussion among professionals and the public.
Accredited Practising Dietitians (APDs) try to separate the fact from the fad to nut out what place coconut oil actually has in our diets (if it has a place at all!).
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is extracted from coconut flesh, leaving behind the fibre, carbohydrate and protein, the extracted oil is pure fat. As we know, there are many different types of fats. The two major kinds are saturated fats (unhealthy fats that can promote heart disease) and unsaturated fats (healthy fats that can reduce your risk of heart disease). Saturated fats make up 92% of coconut oil – a higher percentage than butter. Saturated fats tend to increase your LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol in the blood and should be eaten sparingly to minimise your risk of developing heart disease.
One of the main arguments put forward by those who support coconut oil is that the saturated fat in coconut oil behaves differently to typical saturated fats, preventing any negative effects on health. The evidence states it’s not that simple. Here are the facts…
Coconut oil is particularly high in one type of saturated fatty acid (the building blocks of fats) called lauric acid. This type of fatty acid tends to mimic healthy unsaturated fats by boosting HDL (good) cholesterol. This may make it less bad than other saturated fats. However, studies show that with the consumption of coconut oil, whilst healthy HDL cholesterol levels appear to rise, so too does total cholesterol and unhealthy LDL cholesterol in the blood!1 Overall, the current evidence shows that coconut oil simply does not stack up against healthy unsaturated fats (like those found in olive oil) that lower the bad stuff whilst increasing the good stuff too.
Should I include coconut oil in my diet?
Coconut oil is very energy dense! It provides 505kJ in just one tablespoon, 92% of which is made up of saturated fatty acids. Unlike some other oils, it provides no vitamins or the polyphenol antioxidant compounds like those found in extra virgin olive oil.
There is currently not enough evidence to recommend we choose coconut oil over healthy fats such as olive or canola oils. A recent review of the existing evidence on coconut oil and heart health was conducted by the New Zealand Heart Foundation. The academic paper concluded that based on the current evidence, it is still preferable to use unsaturated plant oils over coconut oil. Making the switch to coconut oil is likely to lead to less favourable fat profiles and potentially increase the risk of coronary heart disease.
It is important to remember that we need to look at the whole diet for the prevention of disease. Our body’s systems are complex and require a range of different nutrients for optimal health. Our time is better spent enjoying a varied and full diet of whole foods, fruits, vegetables, legumes, grain-based foods, nuts, lean meats, fish and reduced-fat dairy, rather than focusing on a select set of so called ‘superfoods’ to boost our health. Remember, no one food provides all the nutrients we need.
DAA supports the 2013 Australian Dietary Guidelines produced by the National Health and Medical Research Council, which states Australians should avoid foods high in saturated fats and opt for foods high in polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. The guidelines were developed by a team of nutrition and medical professionals through a systematic review of more than 55,000 research papers.
APD recipe tips
- Choose to cook with unsaturated oils such as olive, avocado and canola oils
- When a recipe calls for coconut cream or milk, use ‘light’ varieties and thicken with corn flour if a creamier texture is required
- Another alternative is to blend half the required amount of coconut cream/milk with evaporated milk, reducing the saturated fat content whilst still providing a subtle coconut flavour
- Experiment with other flavours, try kafir lime leaves, basil, lemongrass or ginger for an exotic flavour boost
- For people who use lots of coconut oil in their diet, put a cap on the amount you use or try blending it with some monounsaturated oils such as olive, canola or avocado oil.
APDs can decipher the fact from the fiction when it comes to nutrition. For advice tailored to your individual needs, an APD can support you to make the right decisions for your diet based on the latest evidence.