Why I’m Not Going Nuts for Coconut

Leo Pemberton urges you to choose your oils wisely

Coconut oil is everywhere – touted as the new miracle food, beauty product, mouthwash (aka ‘oil pulling’) and even as a home cleaning product. The sisters Hemsley + Hemsley recently wrote an article for Marie-Claire titled ‘Why Coconut Oil Should Be Your New Diet Staple’ and author Ella Woodward (Deliciously Ella) has called it ‘a total wonder product’ and a ‘super food in the kitchen’. In their droves, health-conscious cooks are shunning other oils in favour of this white fat, which sells for as much as £20 a tub. The Paleo and clean eating obsessives even add a tablespoon or two to their morning coffee (retch).

4031507140_35ca846d90_zSo, what claims are being made for coconut oil that might explain its meteoric rise? The most widely touted benefit is that despite being a saturated fat – up to 92% – it contains ‘lauric acid’ which raises HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol. It’s also said to contain impressive levels of Vitamin E, antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids as well as boasting a high smoke point for frying. Seemingly legit websites claim myriad health benefits: Wellness Mama’s ‘101 Uses for Coconut Oil’ blog post, for instance, recommends it as an excellent sunscreen and even suggests massaging the oil into the perineum after childbirth – what versatility!

With any new wonder food – chia, goji berries, bee pollen, unicorn balls – I won’t jump on the bandwagon if the claims simply don’t add up. Us health professionals maintain a pesky insistence on rigorous research and as a responsible dietitian, I need to see the evidence.

So: the science. Fat is an essential part of our diet – a rich energy source (at 9 calories per gram), providing fat-soluble vitamins and enhancing food taste. Whilst the debate is far from over, saturated fats are known to increase our levels of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol. Over time, this lays down tiny plaques in our arteries, leading to a ‘hardening’ a bit like limescale in a kettle. Eventually this can cause a blockage leading to heart attack, or break off, increasing the risk of a stroke or embolism. Conversely, HDL – the ‘good’ cholesterol – is protective as it hustles LDL away to the liver to be disposed of before it has time to stick to our arteries. Variables like smoking and activity levels also play a role in our cholesterol production, but fat intake is a key factor. We know that foods which contain the highest levels of monounsaturates – olive and rapeseed oils, avocado, nuts and seeds for example – not only lower ‘bad’ and total cholesterol levels, but can also help raise the amount of HDL. A triple whammy of heart-healthy benefits in one! Polyunsaturates such as sunflower oil lower the total but also the ‘good’ cholesterol, making them a sound second choice.

But whilst research is limited, the evidence so far is that coconut oil raises all types of cholesterol. This is most likely due to the fact that lauric acid typically makes up only half of the saturates in coconut oil, and in any case it’s one of the three highest cholesterol-raising fatty acids. Olive oil has a much better nutrient-profile at a fraction of the price. And the high smoke point? Well, just because it is good for baking or frying, doesn’t necessarily make it any healthier.

The huge number of cholesterol tests I perform allow me to identify trends, and increasingly I’m seeing disordered results from those regularly consuming coconut oil. What I witness in clinic is that the best profiles typically come from those who include plenty of monos, limited saturates and regular activity.

Let’s not, though, throw the whole coconut out with the bathwater. Coconut milk is a key ingredient in many Asian dishes, coconut water – whilst extortionately expensive bottled – contains rehydrating electrolytes, the fibre-containing fleshy part can count as one of your five-a-day and of course the empty half shells are unrivalled for horse-hoof sound effects in school plays.

Coconut oil, as with butter, is fine for limited and occasional use but despite clinical trials aimed at establishing benefits of virgin coconut, it hasn’t been possible conclusively to evaluate the effects. So where there’s a better option – such as heart-healthy rapeseed oil, ideal for high temperature cooking – why take the risk? Why not stick with what we know for certain: that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil, grains, low-fat dairy, fish, pulses and limited meat is best for our heart?

 

Leo Pemberton RD
www.yourlondonnutritionist.com
Twitter: @LeoNutrition
Facebook: Your London Nutritionist

 

 

Image credit: Hafiz Issadeen

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