Thursday, March 30, 2023

We were told to avoid coconut oil like the plague. Now it sits proudly on the shelf, often near the olive oil. We were warned it could lead to a variety of negative health consequences. What happened?

In some cultures, coconut oil has been used as a primary dietary staple as far back as one can research. South Pacific Islanders and Polynesian communities have relied heavily on coconut oil for food preparation as well as their caloric intake, possibly as high as more than 50% of their caloric intake, and have very low rates of heart disease. On the other hand, American levels of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and Alzheimer’s disease have skyrocketed over the last number of decades even though we dutifully decreased our coconut oil consumption.

Coconut oil is a naturally occurring saturated fat. However, it has a different molecular structure which doesn’t negatively affect health the way other saturated fats, especially processed fats, seem to do. Previous studies involved refined, hydrogenated coconut oil. More recently, studies involving non-chemically or unprocessed coconut oil show positive health benefits.

Coconut oil has shown to improve overall immune function. It seems to fight off not only bacterial and viral illnesses but yeast, fungal, and strep as well. Coconut oil has also been studied and has positive effects on hormones, such as improving thyroid function and metabolism. In addition, it may improve insulin resistance which could impact and be beneficial for people with metabolic syndromes, diabetes, and blood sugar issues. Heart disease, lowering cholesterol, and improving cholesterol ratios are other areas coconut oil continues to be studied—with positive indications.

Some studies have shown that coconut oil can aid in digestion, vitamin absorption, and irritable bowel syndrome. In addition, studies are looking into how it may affect Alzheimer’s disease. Some professionals are recommending it topically for skin irritations, scarring, and wound care.

As soon as a product becomes popular for health and especially weight loss, its label becomes particularly confusing. Coconut oil may be labeled “cold pressed,” “virgin,” “bleached,” “deodorized,” or “refined.” Most of these terms refer to how the oil was processed and whether or not it was heated during extraction. More processed coconut oil can contain partially hydrogenated fats. This is the type of fat that can turn into trans fats, something to be avoided! I recommend keeping it simple and looking for “virgin” coconut oil as it generally means the oil is unprocessed or chemically treated.

Coconut oil can be used in a variety of cooking and baking situations. Coconut oil is a good option since it withstands heat better than olive oil. An increase in vegan diets has helped put it on the map since it is a plant-based fat. It is also non-dairy and therefore is a good butter substitute for those with dairy allergies.

Coconut oil can be added to vegetables, and its flavors compliment nicely with onions and garlic. It can be used in stir fries with vegetables, chicken, and fish as it compliments those flavors as well. Some enjoy it on toast instead of butter.

Coconut oil also works well for baking. For example, it is a healthier option for pie shells and dough yet it retains a flakiness and fluffiness necessary for baked goods.

At this time, coconut oil recommendations are not conclusive and vary depending on age and health. With coconut oil gaining more and more popularity there is a trend to add it to lots food options, some of which people had previously not added to their diet. At this time, I generally recommend using coconut oil in place of other fats. For example, if one were to butter bread, try spreading coconut oil on it. If you were going to add oil or butter to broccoli, see if you like how coconut oil tastes on it. If one were to add oil or a healthy fat to a smoothie, try adding coconut oil.

Bess Berger is a Registered Dietitian and practices in Teaneck. She consults and counsels on general nutrition and medically-nutrition related issues. Bess can be reached at 201 837 0546 or [email protected]

By Bess Berger, RD, CDN

Sign up now!