A few weeks ago, a review from the American Heart Association made headlines as it "revealed" findings from many studies deeming coconut oil as "all of a sudden" bad for you. As a dietitian, I get many questions from patients and acquaintances about coconut oil, so figured I'd help set the record straight and hopefully help you decide how to incorporate this source of dietary fat into your diet and into this recipe.
Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, making it a saturated fat, sitting in the company of other fats such as butter, lard, dairy fat, and fat that comes from beef, red meat, and eggs. Saturated fats, in comparison to unsaturated fats (vegetable, canola, safflower, olive oil) have found to not be beneficial for health.
Remember that glorious Time Magazine cover that discredited scientists' villainization of butter and you thought you could douse your buckets of popcorn with liquid gold once again? What that article failed to mention and convey to the public was that actually when saturated fats in your diet are replaced with refined carbohydrates cholesterol levels and risk for cardiovascular disease don't change (and may actually worsen). BUT (and it's a big but), when saturated fats are replaced with UNsaturated ones (especially polyunsaturated fats like olive oil) the LDL, or "bad" cholesterol levels have been shown to decrease, while actually boositng levels of the HDL, or "good" cholesterol. I hope you see where the true health benefits actually lie...
Intro to Coco
So, turning to coconut oil again. It comes from a plant, is "natural", and while it does contain saturated fat, much of it is in the form of MCTs (medium chain triglycerides), which is a type of fat that is used more for energy rather than being stored by the body. If you're a bulletproof coffee believer you are all too familiar with MCT oil. What the public may not realize is that only a very small percentage of the fat in coconut oil is MCTs (about 15%), and so the remaining fat profile is exactly those saturated fats that increase your LDL and risk for heart disease.
The bottom line
If you're scratching your head still trying to decide if you should consume coconut oil, the bottom line is yes, sure, in moderation. The idea of villainizing one food and making it "off limits" is usually not a positive mentality when it comes to one's diet. The bottom line is to use it sparingly in your cooking, say a tablespoon or two for the curried vegetable stew you're making for an added coconut flavor boost. You will quickly reach the recommendation of 10% of daily calories from saturated fat if you tend to be heavy handed with your oils, so best to break out the measuring spoons if you do decide to indulge in coconut oil on occasion. As always, a diet is best balanced when you include plenty of vegetables, fruits, beans and legumes, whole grains, and unsaturated fats.
A cautionary tale
Aside from learning some valuable nutrition information to make informed choices in your daily diet, I hope this discussion has also shed some light on the persuasive power of alarming media headlines. In today's age of nutrition confusion, print and online media, documentaries, and the like place important topics in terms of black and white, good and bad, when in reality food is not so simple and these guidelines may not be applicable for every person. To learn more about how certain foods and nutrients can have a place in your diet, I always recommend seeking advice from a registered dietitian who can help you form a nutrient-rich eating pattern that suits your nutrition needs, daily schedule, finances, and of course tastes!
I always encourage a healthy discussion of the latest food and nutrition news, but now on to the recipe!