Coconuts and cocnut oil on a tableIs sugar bad for you?

Is fat bad for you?

These are two very common and important questions. It’s perhaps unsurprising that people have attempted to answer the questions in one form or another. Just take a look at the number of search results for the two and you’ll get the picture.

the google search result for the question "is sugar bad for you?"
the google search result for the question "is fat bad for you?"

The two questions are popular for good reason – both fat and sugar have the power to wreak havoc on our bodies. Consuming the right proportions of each is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Cooking oils remain one of the foods that contribute to our fat consumption. This is why we probably keep on searching for answers on the best oil choice.  We have looked at how good canola oil is for health. Let’s now take a look at another popular oil – coconut oil.

The backstory

The general word out there is that coconut oil is a great cooking oil choice. The oil has even been dubbed the best butter replacement in vegan cooking. Coconut oil’s popularity has grown for several reasons besides the promotion by several celebrities on the pro coconut oil bandwagon.

I have cooked with virgin coconut oil for a little over two years and I’ve used the oil in my hair as part of my beauty regime for nearly as long. The results have been amazing, both in the kitchen and on my hair.

I do admit that I’m one of those people who started using coconut oil after reading about its many wonderful benefits. I never took the time to see if there was another side to the oil because I was blown away by all the facts in support of it.

However, I recently established that not everyone thinks that coconut oil is that great. One Harvard professor even went as far as labelling the oil ‘pure poison’. While not everyone takes such an extreme stance against coconut oil, many nutritionists agree that research on the oil is not extensive enough to support all its supposed health benefits.

When faced with differing views there is only one way out – research and more research. So research I did.

Here’s what I found out about coconut oil (the good and the bad), plus some good practices for using the oil as part of a healthy diet.  

The pros

  • Coconut oil is a great choice for cooking because of its stability and ability to resist heat-induced damage.

This makes it a better choice over oils which have low smoke points (e.g. virgin olive oil) or are more susceptible to oxidative damage.

Note: Around 40% of coconut oil’s composition is lauric acid, a type of saturated fat. The high proportion of lauric acid makes coconut oil highly resistant to oxidation even at high heat. This makes coconut oil suitable for most medium-to-high temperature cooking.

Lauric acid also makes coconut oil highly resistant to rancidity and gives the oil a longer shelf life.

  • The proportions of fatty acids in coconut oil are important.

Coconut oil has both omega 6 and 9 fatty acids but in very low proportions. This is good because even though both omega-6 and omega-3 are important for the body, most oils have disproportionately higher levels of omega-6 compared to omega-3. High levels of omega 6 fatty acids may cause reactions that damage body protein and increase the risk of health problems like heart attacks, hypertension, and stroke.

  • The composition of coconut oil is beneficial

Coconut oil consists of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and not long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). MCTs are easily digested by the body unlike LCTs, and this makes it highly unlikely for MCTs to be stored as fat. On the other hand, LCTs are more difficult to break down and they increase the body’s toxic burden.

The cons

The saturated fat that makes coconut oil stable and resistant to rancidification is the same element at the centre of the debate surrounding how healthy the oil is.

In addition to the lauric acid, coconut oil has more saturated fat.  About 90% of coconut oil is saturated fat. 

Many nutritionists advise that coconut oil is best avoided because it has lots of saturated fat which promotes high levels of cholesterol. In the past, we could have easily believed this, but research has retired the saturated fat myth. To clear everything, let’s take a peek at the connection between the saturated in coconut oil and cholesterol.

Coconut oil, saturated fat, and cholesterol

LDL cholesterol, “the bad cholesterol”, exists as large LDL and small, dense LDL. Results indicate that it is the small LDL cholesterol particles which increase the risk of heart disease. This is because while the small LDL cholesterol particles can penetrate the arteries easily, the big ones can’t.

A study has shown that consuming more saturated fat changes the small particles into larger ones. Consequently, this reduces the heart disease risk factor. All other factors aside, this means that consuming more coconut oil saturated fat can, in fact, reduce the risk of heart disease.

Another study highlighted the effect of low-carb and low-fat diets on LDL cholesterol. The low-carb diet, which tends to be higher in saturated fat, resulted in lower LDL levels. This is probably because the low-fat diet has high sugar levels which make your liver synthesise more LDL cholesterol.

Put simply, these studies show that saturated fat is not the problem when it comes to cholesterol. In fact, The National Institutes of Health says that most cases of high cholesterol are a result of unhealthy lifestyles.

So if saturated fat is not the problem, what is?

The problem

The major problem with coconut oil is the processing. This issue is also one of the problems with canola oil, and pretty much every other cooking oil. Too much processing ruins a good thing, but businesses are after high profit margins. The fact that the oil is exposed to harsh processing is likely a secondary issue.

Coconut oil contains phytochemicals which have antioxidant benefits. However, most processing processes strip the oil of these antioxidants and other fatty acids. This is why it’s best to go for virgin or extra virgin coconut oil whenever possible.

The bottom line

Coconut oil has its share of benefits and drawbacks. Based on what we know, it’s probably safe to say that the good outweighs the bad. However, this is not where the focus should be.

The focus should be on healthy eating habits. This means not focusing solely on just the oil.

Some things to focus on include:

  • Not having too much of anything. Too much of anything is bad. Simple. For example, it’s better to use small amounts of coconut oil than excessive olive oil regardless of the latter probably being the healthiest cooking oil we have, all things considered.
  • Opting for virgin or extra virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil if possible. If you can’t get either, you can still use the ‘average’ coconut oil sparingly. Moderation is key.
  • Incorporating unprocessed foods into your diet. Think fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meat, and organic produce.
  • Paying attention to your cooking methods. Do you have to use that much oil? Can you boil or steam your food instead? Can you sauté the food instead of deep fat frying?

Ultimately, an approach that focuses on health is more prudent than obsessing over which oil is best. This is for the best because you’ll probably never find a cooking oil that ticks all the boxes.

What do you choose today? A holistic approach to health, or a narrow-minded one that is more concerned about one food component and not the rest of your diet. I choose the full picture.

Interested in more resources on cooking oil? Check out our blog on canola oil — the oil that comes with a bit of controversy.

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