The Great Coconut Debate

There’s been increasing talk lately about the potential benefits of coconut and coconut oil. Known to be a saturated fat, it has historically been recommended that people limit coconut in thier diets because of its potential to raise cholesterol. But recently, coconut has been reported to have health benefits. So is it good? Bad?

My interest was sparked earlier today when I tried a new product: a cereal made with quinoa and coconut milk. This product has 6g saturated fat, which would usually prompt me to place it directly back on the shelf! But since I knew that the saturated fat was coming from coconut oil (found in coconut milk), I decided to research it to find out the scoop.

I would say that the overall consensus of the dietetics community is still that coconut oil is to be limited in the diet, since it is a saturated fat (along with other similar fats such as butter and cream). But the debate lies in that coconut oil, although a saturated fat, has benefits because of it’s medium-chain structure (versus long-chain). Without getting too technical, this means that the body is able to metabolize it more quickly than other fats. Some research demonstrates that this causes increased energy expenditure, potentially decreasing weight and cholesterol levels. Still, other research indicates that medium-chain fatty acids, such as coconut oil, still increase cholesterol and specifically, triglyceride levels, known markers for heart disease.

In fact, this debate is nothing new; it has been going on for decades! There is research dating back to the 1960s examining the effects of coconut on cholesterol levels. During college, in the early 2000s, I also did some research on coconut oil as part of an experimental foods project. At that time, I found the research on the health benefits of coconut oil to be conflicting, and I still do.

So what’s the bottom line? Should we start replacing the “good” fats, such as olive oil and canola oil, with coconut oil? I don’t think the research is clear enough yet, especially since this could pose a health risk if you already have high cholesterol and/or heart disease. But will a little hurt? I doubt it. My advice is to continue consuming saturated fats in moderation, and that includes coconut oil. Rely more heavily on unsaturated fats such as oils, nuts, avocado and olives since research does demonstrate their benefits on heart health. I will enjoy my new cereal from time to time, even though it contains half of the saturated fats I need for the whole day. That’s alright with me; after all, any food is okay to consume in moderation.

Photo credit: bigjom

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