Co­conut oil – is it good or bad?

The Tribune (NZ) - - YOUR HEALTH -

Q: Is co­conut oil healthy or not? There are a lot of dif­fer­ent opin­ions on this. Re­gards, Matt

A: Thanks for your ques­tion, Matt. De­pend­ing on who you talk to (or what you read), co­conut oil may be touted as a health­pro­mot­ing su­per­food or a se­ri­ous threat to your health. And it’s no won­der peo­ple don’t know what to be­lieve with the amount of con­flict­ing in­for­ma­tion on this topic.

Co­conut oil has a very dif­fer­ent fatty acid com­po­si­tion to most other ed­i­ble oils. It is com­prised of about 90 per cent sat­u­rated fat, and the ma­jor­ity of this is in the form of medium-chain triglyc­erides (MCTs; medi­um­chain fatty acids joined to a glyc­erol back­bone). Other di­etary fats are largely in the form of longchain triglyc­erides, in which the fatty acids have a longer car­bon chain.

All you need to un­der­stand about this is that MCTs are di­gested dif­fer­ently to long-chain fatty acids – they are ab­sorbed di­rectly into the blood and go straight to the liver, so in a healthy per­son, they tend to be used ef­fi­ciently for en­ergy and may be less likely to be stored as body fat. Long-chain fatty acids are ab­sorbed via the lym­phatic sys­tem.

The main fatty acid in co­conut oil is lau­ric acid. This is a medium-chain fatty acid, which is also found in breast milk and has po­tent an­timi­cro­bial prop­er­ties, so co­conut oil may help to pro­tect against cer­tain types of in­fec­tions. There are also some stud­ies that sug­gest that co­conut oil may aid weight man­age­ment.

Due to the struc­ture of sat­u­rated fats, in­clud­ing the fats found in co­conuts, they are very sta­ble at higher tem­per­a­tures, more so than polyun­sat­u­rated veg­etable-based oils. Sat­u­rated fats do not con­tain any dou­ble bonds in their struc­ture whereas the polyun­sat­u­rated fats do, mean­ing the lat­ter can be more read­ily dam­aged dur­ing cook­ing. Hence, it can be wise to cook with mo­noun­sat­u­rated fats such as olive oil (sta­ble to be­tween 180-210 degrees Celsius) and/or ghee or co­conut oils that have an even higher heat tol­er­ance.

The ar­gu­ment against co­conut oil re­lates to its high sat­u­rated fat con­tent and a po­ten­tial ef­fect on blood choles­terol lev­els. How­ever, diet is only re­spon­si­ble for about 20 per cent of the choles­terol in your blood (the liver is re­spon­si­ble for the other 80 per cent, so tak­ing amaz­ing care of your liver is es­sen­tial for sup­port­ing a healthy blood lipid profile) and the link be­tween sat­u­rated fat and risk of car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease has been dra­mat­i­cally called into ques­tion over the past cou­ple of years.

Re­duc­ing sat­u­rated fat alone does not nec­es­sar­ily re­duce risk of heart dis­ease, but we know that eat­ing plenty of an­tiox­i­dant-rich fruits and veg­eta­bles does, along with nour­ish­ing ‘‘real food’’ fats such as those found in av­o­cado, olives, nuts and seeds. If you have an un­favourable blood lipid profile, I can­not en­cour­age you enough to work with an ex­pe­ri­enced health­care pro­fes­sional to get to the heart of what is caus­ing this.

Fo­cus­ing on one food or one nu­tri­ent gen­er­ally isn’t help­ful; co­conut oil isn’t go­ing to com­pletely trans­form your health, pos­i­tively or neg­a­tively – no one food will. It is our over­all di­etary pat­tern that is most im­por­tant for our health and well­be­ing, so choose real, whole foods (es­pe­cially plenty of colour­ful veg­eta­bles) that nour­ish you.

Ex­ces­sive con­sump­tion of any one food (even nu­tri­tious foods) is not healthy, so va­ri­ety is an im­por­tant con­cept. The body re­quires dif­fer­ent types of fats for op­ti­mal health, so en­joy some co­conut oil if this nour­ishes you, but be sure to in­clude other es­sen­tial fats as well (from foods like oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and wal­nuts) as part of a nu­tri­ent-dense way of eat­ing.

❚ Dr Libby is a nu­tri­tional bio­chemist, best-sell­ing au­thor and speaker. The ad­vice con­tained in this column is not in­tended to be a sub­sti­tute for di­rect, per­son­alised ad­vice from a health pro­fes­sional. See dr­


Co­conut oil isn’t go­ing to com­pletely trans­form your health, pos­i­tively or neg­a­tively – no one food will.

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