By Susan Burke March, MS, RDN, LDN, CDE
Recent news reports have touted coconut oil as having a bunch of “surprising” health benefits.
It seems that some “experts” are claiming that it can boost immunity, influence hormonal health, control blood sugar, help with weight control, slow aging, and reduce your need for antioxidants, and even conquer Alzheimer’s.
When something sounds too good to be true, use your coconut and ask questions. I can’t help but wonder why coconut oil would possess these magical properties that reduce the risk of disease.
It turns out that in this case the marketing behind coconut oil focuses on a single nutrient rather than overall nutrition.
PEELING BACK THE HUSK
Registered Dietitian Jeff Novick is one of my favorite “go-to-guys” for busting through nutrition myths; he’s adept in sniffing out the hype surrounding “miracle foods.” After reviewing some of the scientific studies that coconut oil promoters use to justify their health claims, Jeff concluded that many of the proponents referred to studies involving the traditional diets of the Polynesian people who tend to have relatively low rates of heart disease despite their high intake of coconut and a higher level of blood cholesterol.
Novick notes there is more to the story.
Other aspects of the traditional Polynesian diet and lifestyle may be responsible for their good health. For example, the traditional Polynesian diet is very high in fiber thanks to the locally grown fresh fruits, veggies and root vegetables. This provides a high dose of plant sterols and protective Omega-3 fats. The diet is also very low in sodium.
Health expert Walter Willet of the Harvard School of Public Health says that most of the research on coconut oil and its affect on lowering cholesterol are inconclusive. He also emphasizes that the 90% saturated fat content of coconut oil is much higher than butter (64%), beef fat (40%) and even lard (also 40%).
IF IT SOUNDS TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE …
According to Wikipedia, the coconut is an amazingly versatile fruit because of its domestic, commercial and industrial value. It’s a popular ingredient in beauty products that range from skin creams to hair conditioners. Its husk is used for skin exfoliation. Coconut oil is also rich in saturated fats that include a small percentage of the “medium chain triglycerides” or MCTs.
As reported in USNews.com, the health benefits attributed to coconut oil’s “high” MCT content aren’t warranted. MCTs account for only 10-15% of coconut oil’s fat; the major saturated fat is lauric acid, and there’s not sufficient scientific evidence that links lauric acid to meaningful health benefits.
And, further research shows that MCTs may, in fact, help raise “healthy” HDL cholesterol, but they also raise the “lousy” LDL cholesterol.
A Chicago-based osteopath named Joseph Mercola touts coconut oil to treat a myriad of what ails you: heart disease, IBS (irritable bowel syndrome), Alzheimer’s disease – even cancer. In February 2005, Mercola was ordered by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration to stop making illegal claims for products sold through his website and received a warning letter regarding his virgin coconut oil, chlorella and “Living Fuel Rx,” among other products. You can read the FDA’s determination of the false or misleading claims here.
As reported in Center for Science in the Public Interest, Dr. Mercola was a guest on the Dr. (Memhet) Oz television show where Oz pronounced, “The first of the health benefits of coconuts — the one you’re going to care about a lot — is weight loss.” Mercola echoed, “By eating more coconut oil, “you might slim your waist in one week.”
But the evidence behind the claim is pretty thin. Only one published study, a university master’s thesis in Brazil, has tested whether coconut oil could help people lose weight. It didn’t. Savvy dieters know that when you add extra fat to your diet, you’re adding calories, and little else as far as nutritional value is concerned.
All fat is 100% fat while all oils have about 120 calories per tablespoon. Coconut oil does not contain any protein, carbohydrate, vitamins, minerals or fiber, so if you add it to your diet as a “health food,” you’d better account for those excess calories.
By the way, Mercola certainly has some skin in the game, so to speak. He sells coconut oil at $17.45 for a 16-oz jar on his Web site, plus shipping and tax, which works out to about 50-plus cents per tablespoon. He also markets hundreds of other products, ranging from protein shakes and bars, to feminine products and even dog bones and beds.
I just love fresh coconut. Fresh coconut is naturally low in sugar. A cup of raw coconut meat has 283 calories, just 6 grams of sugar (naturally occurring) and 7 grams of heart-healthy fiber. It has almost no sodium, a modicum (3 grams) of protein, but it’s a significant source of iron, manganese, which helps support the immune and nervous system, and heart-healthy potassium and copper.
But, attention shoppers! At SuperMaxi, you probably won’t find unsweetened coconut in the baking aisle. The shredded varieties are usually sweetened with sugar. Visit one of the many wonderful mercados in Cuenca for fresh coconut meat.
Coconut oil is mainly comprised of saturated fat. There’s no substantiated research to link consumption to better health for the average consumer.
It’s important to eat FOODS, not nutrients. Whole foods are comprised of a smorgasbord of unique ingredients that, in addition to making a satisfying meal, provides you with extra energy and better health. There is no single food that will cure you or kill you. Enjoy your foods and flavors without “dieting” or fasting.
Dr. Willet observes that coconut is a wonderful flavor and says that there’s no problem using coconut oil occasionally. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, and instead of butter or especially vegetable shortening (trans fat), it’s a good alternative to use coconut oil in piecrust and other baked goods that require a solid source of fat. And coconut oil can be considered an essential ingredient in some ethnic dishes, such as Thai food.
For everyday cooking and salad oils, stay with monounsaturated oils like extra virgin organic olive oil or organic canola oil which have been shown to lower “bad” LDL and increase “good” HDL.
Novick, meanwhile, recommends that on days that you’re using coconut oil or eating coconut you should keep the rest of your foods low in saturated fat.
If you’re in the market for organic coconut oil or butter, there are a number of natural foods tiendas around Cuenca – please feel free to post your favorite source in town – and while you’re at it, share where you shop for fresh coconuts too.
Susan Burke March, a Cuenca expat, is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian, a Certified Diabetes Educator who specializes in smart solutions for weight loss and diabetes-related weight management. She is the author of Making Weight Control Second Nature: Living Thin Naturally—a fun and informative book intended to liberate serial dieters and make healthy living and weight control both possible and instinctual over the long term. Do you have a food, nutrition or health question? Write to me at SusanTheDietitian@gmail.com