Oh for the love of coconut (oil)!

The coconut has long been praised by health enthusiasts, alternative medicine practitioners, and some nutrition practitioners as a good source of healthy fats.  This aura of health has lead to people laying aside their vegetable oil, canola oil, and even olive oil in favor of this fragrant, nutty-tasting, shortening-like coconut oil, believing it to be the healthy choice.  People seem to be using coconut oil for everything these days — from cooking and baking to skin and hair care.  Unfortunately, for the coconut-crazy, coconut oil’s aura of health has recently been challenged by the American Heart Association.

So, what’s the big deal?  Coconut oil is a saturated fat.  Saturated fats are easily identified by the fact that they are solid at room temperature — butter, lard, and beef tallow are also great examples of saturated fats.  The Advisory referred to by the AHA is generally warning that overconsumption of all saturated fats can lead to an increased risk of heart disease.  While they are not targeting coconut oil directly, many people are focusing on coconut oil because it is so popular as a “health” food.

Unsaturated fats, such as olive, peanut, and canola oil are liquid at room temperature and may help reduce the risk of heart disease.  Many of these unsaturated fats can be found in foods such as avocados, cold-water fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, etc.), nuts, seeds, and olives.

Fat, along with protein and carbohydrates, is one of the important macronutrients our bodies need in order to function properly.  Not only do our bodies need fat, they need all different kinds of fat, both saturated and unsaturated.  The problem is that most Americans eat more saturated fat than is healthy.  According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the average person should get less than 10% of his or her total calories from saturated fat — in more concrete terms, that means that if you eat 2,000 calories per day, you should get less than 200 of those calories from saturated fat, which translates to less than 22 grams of saturated fat per day.

If you eat meat, then some of the saturated fat in your diet will naturally come from whatever meat you eat each day.  Saturated fat can also be found in egg yolks and dairy products.  If you’re vegetarian, you may get some of your saturated fat from eggs and dairy, but vegans won’t get find any protein sources as a significant source of saturated fat.  Coconut oil contains approximately 11 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, so keep that in mind when deciding whether or not to use it.

Personally, I love unrefined coconut oil.  I love the texture it gives cooked meats, and i will always choose coconut oil over hydrogenated oils, such as vegetable shortening, since hydrogenated oils are the only significant sources of trans fats, which are not found in significant quantities in nature.  Trans fats have been found to actually increase cholesterol and lead to a higher risk of heart disease than natural saturated fat.  With that said, coconut oil makes up only a small portion of the fat I use in my cooking.  More often, I use olive oil or peanut oil.  Sometimes I use a small amount of butter or coconut oil for extra flavor or texture.

So, what’s the point here?  The point is that coconut oil is not the perfect food, but it’s not evil, either.  Like any food, moderation is the key when it comes to coconut oil.  Take a look at your diet and decide if coconut oil is an appropriate choice for you — and if so, how much you should include in your diet.



Catherine Hall

About Catherine Hall

Catherine lives in Bangor, Maine with her family. She gained her appreciation for food and cooking from her grandmother and learned most of her technical knowledge from watching the Food Network. When not in the kitchen, Catherine can be found outdoors attempting to grow vegetables (not always successfully), practicing yoga, and taking Capoeira classes in downtown Bangor. Catherine can also be found walking around town with her Guiding Eyes guide dog, Caleb.