Coconut Oil: About The Only Oil You Need

10 03 2013

I often get asked about fats and oils, and which are actually best for your health. The answer really isn’t cut and dry, but I will sing the praises of one product in particular: coconut oil. I will also mention the value/risks associated with other options, but here is why you should consider coconut oil as the main cooking oil in your diet.

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What is coconut oil?

Coconut oil is extracted from the meat of coconut. It is solid at room temperature and is slow to oxidize, resistant to rancidity, and can last on the shelf for up to two years. It has been used for generations as a primary source of fat for millions of people in heart-healthy tropical countries like the Philippines, India and Thailand, etc., with seemingly no adverse side effects.

Why coconut oil so great?

NOTE: Many commercial coconut oils are refined, bleached and deodorized and contain chemicals used in processing. Make sure that your coconut oil is certified organic, which  means it contains no genetically engineered ingredients, and is free of bleaching, deodorizing, refining and hydrogenation.

Coconut oil has gotten a bad reputation because it contains a very high amount of saturated fat (almost 90%), which has been linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, etc.  As I mentioned in my post on fats, saturated fat is only dangerous to human health if consumed disproportionately to unsaturated fats, and especially if consumed in a diet alongside many sugar-laden, highly-processed foods. The saturated fat content of coconut oil is actually beneficial due to its composition of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs such as lauric acid, capric acid, and caprylic acid) which possess antimicrobial, antioxidant, antifungal, and antibacterial properties. Lauric acid is critical against viruses and bacteria associated with herpes, flu, HIV,  Listeria, and giardia, capric acid is the main combatant against Candida albicans (cause of yeast infections), and caprylic acid is particularly good at battling Staphylococcus and Streptococcus bacteria. Long story short, coconut oil keeps crappy health problems at bay.

**Bonus tip for pregnant/lactating mothers: Virgin coconut oil increases the amount of capric acid in breast milk; this helps to increase levels of good cholesterol (HDL) relative to bad cholesterol (LDL). HDL helps protect children from infections and toxins and infections in children are typically accompanied by high levels of LDL relative to HDL.

MCTs are additionally beneficial due to the way they are handled by the human body. Most saturated fats are made of long-chain fatty acids, which undergo a long digestive process in the body and are therefore not a great energy source (they are better used for cellular function, etc.). MCTs are broken down quickly and processed in the liver, bypassing the long lymphatic system route followed by most fats, and can therefore be used as an immediate source of energy for the body (remember when I said you should drink coffee with coconut oil first thing in the morning before working out?…) Studies have also shown that MCTs may lead to greater energy expenditure and assist fat and weight loss by promoting healthy  functioning of the thyroid gland and by reducing stress on the pancreas, resulting in a more efficient metabolism.

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If this weren’t enough, coconut oil also reduces the work load on the liver and prevents the accumulation of fat; it helps dissolve kidney stones;  it is useful in treating pancreatitis; it helps regulate blood sugar thereby preventing and treating diabetes; it encourages the absorption of calcium and strengthens teeth and stops decay. Coconut oil is also rich in linoleic acid, oleic acid, polyphenols, vitamin E, vitamin K, and iron.

In the end, coconut oil has been linked to many health benefits which include hair health, skin health, increased metabolism, improved weight loss/fat loss, overall immune health, teeth health, bone health, maintenance of healthy cholesterol levels, and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.

Cooking with oil

As coconut oil is solid at room temperature, it is used almost exclusively as a cooking oil in the diet. Technically you could eat it with a spoon, or spread it over other foods, but you will only do this if you absolutely love the rich taste and texture. NOTE: Most coconut oil does not taste much like coconut, it typically has a very neutral, unaggressive taste- I am not a big fan of coconut, but love the taste of coconut oil. Heating fats/oils changes their characteristics and can turn healthy products into dangerous/carcinogenic chemicals. This is why it is critical to match an oil’s heat tolerance with cooking temperature (some oils must be cooked on low heat, others can handle high heat). Some studies have found that polyunsaturated oils like soya, canola, sunflower, and corn oils degrade easily to toxic compounds when heated. This can lead to cancer, cardiovascular disease, birth defects, etc. As I also covered in my post of fats, polyunsaturated fats are important in the maintenance of general health, but heat- and oxidative-degradation turns these oils into very harmful substances.

Please don't put this in your body.

Please don’t put this in your body.

Coconut oil is truly the king of cooking oils as its structure doesn’t change under high-heat conditions (it does not release free radicals when cooking).  The only other alternatives that I would condone are butter (although it has a very low smoke point, but at least doesn’t turn into a harmful product) and extra virgin olive oil- just make sure you don’t overheat it!  You can literally switch over to coconut oil for any kind of stove-top cooking/frying – I now use it for everything from sauteing vegetables to frying eggs; and it is all delicious. The health benefits alone are worth making the switch. Extra virgin olive oil is a great oil, but not if used to cook at high temperatures.

Notes on other common fats/oils:

Extra virgin olive oil: A monounsaturated fat, and a great choice in the diet in a non-heated form, such as in a salad dressing. Extra virgin olive oil, however, begins to oxidize at around 375 degrees F, killing the antioxidant polyphenols that make the oil so healthy and creating a harmful product to the body; cook over medium heat if you must use it for frying.

Flaxseed oil (linseed oil): Full of the essential omega-3 fatty acid ALA (alpha-linolenic acid). Must be kept refrigerated or it will go rancid, and is rarely used for cooking due do its lower smoke point (~350 F). You can use it unheated in shakes, salad dressing, etc.

Palm oil: Similar to coconut oil in that it is a tropical oil, it has a high saturated fat content (~40%, half that of coconut oil), and can withstand high heat without turning into a harmful substance; unlike coconut oil in that its molecular structure and fatty acid content do not offer the same health benefits, and there are sustainability/ethical issues surrounding its production. I would suggest avoiding it.

Butter: Yes it is a saturated fat, but it is nutritious (contains vitamin A, vitamin D, vitamin E, vitamin K, antioxidents, etc.) and it can be used safely for cooking applications. Whipped butter has fewer calories, and is a good choice; spreadable butters usually contain canola oil or trans fats, so read your labels! Ghee is also a good option, and is essentially a butter that is free of impurities and cholesterol.

Margarine: It honestly has no place in any diet. Most forms are hydrogenated (contain trans fat), and it is extremely harmful if heated. Margarine is one molecule away from being a plastic. There are simply too many other options to choose from.

NOTE: When comparing butter vs. margarine, think: natural animal product vs. hydrogenated, oxidized, chemically created substance. It’s a no-brainer. This is a pretty great article on fats/oils in general.

Polyunsaturated oils: Mostly vegetable oils including corn, soy, safflower, sunflower and canola (rapeseed oil), are not recommended for cooking, nor do they have any real advantages over other options. These oils contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids (remember, we want to limit our omega-6 and increase our omega-3, ie fish oil), which are highly susceptible to heat damage: frying destroys the antioxidants in these oils resulting in damaged/mutated omega-6 fats in your diet (potentially carcinogenic), further compounding the health issues associated with a poor omega-6:omega-3 ratio. NOTE: Canola oil is a very common cooking oil (especially in restaurants), but it contains few antioxidants/health benefits and over 90% of it is GMO (genetically modified- so if you’re not into that…); its high smoke-point (it can handle being cooked at high temperatures before turning harmful) is really its only advantage- it does contain a good amount of the omega-3 ALA, but you’re better off getting this from flax, nuts, fish, fish oil, etc.

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In conclusion

Oils, no matter the type, should be consumed in small amounts. Oils are highly caloric due to their high fat content, but this is why it is important to choose healthy oils when we do use them. I now literally only purchase coconut oil, extra virgin olive oil, and flaxseed oil. Coconut oil for my coffee and for frying, extra virgin olive oil for salad dressing/toppings, and flaxseed oil for shakes. Along with my fish oil, this combination gets me all the nutrition one could ask for from oils, and without any of the harmful trans fats and degraded compounds associated with other oils on the market.

For more information on fats/oils, or their associated cooking applications, don’t hesitate to reach out to me, or to post a comment below.

DW