Coconut Oil Confusion

Recently, there has been a lot of buzz about coconut oil.  It’s been touted to help with weight loss and suggested as a healthy fat source. But coconut oil is also high in saturated fat and solid at room temperature, two things typically associated with heart disease.  Confused? Read on to learn the facts.

What is Coconut Oil?

There are two main types of coconut oil: virgin and refined.

Virgin coconut oil is extracted from fresh coconuts without using high temperatures or chemicals. (This is considered unrefined.) The virgin oil has a sweet, light flavor with a hint of coconut. It is ideal for baking or sautéing over medium heat.

Refined coconut oil is made from dried coconut that is chemically bleached and deodorized, making it fairly tasteless.  Coconut oil may also be processed one step further into partially hydrogenated coconut oil.

Coconut Oil and Your Health: The Basics

Generally speaking, coconut oil is a saturated fat. It does not contain cholesterol because it is a plant-based product. It contains no carbohydrates or protein and has trace amounts of iron, vitamin E, and vitamin K.  Virgin coconut oil also has phenolic compounds, which may help fight disease.

Coconut Oil and Your Heart

Coconut oil also contains a type of fat called lauric acid. Lauric acid is a medium chain fatty acid, which can raise both HDL (high density lipoprotein), the “good” cholesterol, and LDL (low density lipoprotein), the “bad” cholesterol. That said, there’s some preliminary evidence suggesting coconut oil may be associated with a neutral, if not beneficial, effect on cholesterol. However, there is currently not enough research to support the numerous health claims associated with it.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 7% of your total daily calories. This is because saturated fat is associated with increased cholesterol and increased risk of coronary artery disease.

One tablespoon of coconut oil will use up 100% of your daily saturated fat allowance (based on a 1500 to 2000 calorie diet).  Of note, other oils used in cooking like canola, safflower, sunflower, flaxseed, grape seed and olive oil have significantly less saturated fat than coconut oil.

Below is a table comparing the calorie and saturated fat of various fats.

Type of Fat

Serving Size

Calories

Grams of Saturated Fat

Coconut Oil

1 Tbsp

120

12

Olive Oil

1 Tbsp

120

2

Butter

1 Tbsp

100

7

Coconut oil, like any other fat, will contribute to weight gain if consumed in excessive quantities.

If you choose to use coconut oil for cooking and baking, here are some guidelines:

• use it in moderation, as it’s still high in calories and saturated fat

• choose virgin when possible

• avoid or limit products with partially hydrolyzed coconut oil (the process of hydrolyzing coconut oil creates trans fat, a type of fat that should be avoided)

About the Author: Emma Toolson is a graduate of Brigham Young University, MGH dietetic intern, yogi, spin enthusiast and beach lover.

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Our Be Fit Nutritionists are comprised of dietetic interns studying at Massachusetts General Hospital. During their internship, they receive training on acute care nutrition, ambulatory and community nutrition, food service systems management, and research. Their comprehensive work is done in collaboration with registered dietitians.

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