Coconut Oil: A Healthy Saturated Fat

It’s probable that pure organic virgin coconut oil may actually be beneficial to our health on several levels.  While it may sound contradictory that a saturated fat could have heart health benefits, population studies strongly point in that direction.  Better insulin and weight control may also be a benefit of coconut oil, although more research is needed.  When it comes to the kitchen, coconut oil is a wonderful alternative for butter and makes foods taste delicious while possibly improving our health.

Residents of certain islands in the South Pacific, like Trobriand and Kitava, where coconut and coconut oil is consumed in large amounts, have been studied and found to be virtually free from stroke and heart disease.  More recently, similar studies in the countries of Philippines and Sri Lanka, where coconut consumption is also high, found that those populations had positive lipid profiles.  Thailand is yet another example of a country with a high intake of coconut oil and a low rate of heart disease, as well as the lowest cancer rates of the 50 countries studied by the World Health Organization.

Most of the studies in the past involving coconut oil were using refined, partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which is full of trans-fats before it was known or understood that trans-fats were harmful.  Recent studies have been conducted on virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, and has been found to be different in terms of  health risks and benefits.

The fats that we usually eat contain more long-chain fatty acids, but the primary fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid which increases levels of good HDL and bad LDL in the blood, and is not thought to negatively affect the overall ratio of the two.

Coconut oil in a pan

Since medium-chain fatty acids are shorter than long-chain fatty acids, which predominate in most oils, they’re routed more directly to the liver, where they’re burned up quickly for energy and have less opportunity to clog artery walls and cause heart disease.

The big question is whether or not coconut oil helps us lose weight.  The medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil are also less likely to be deposited in fat stores and don’t raise blood sugars as carbohydrates do.  We do know cattle got thinner when fed coconut oil in the 1940s, but with just a handful of scientific studies looking at coconut oils’ ability to help us lose weight and regulate blood sugars, it’s impossible to definitively make that claim.  Of the studies done with coconut oil or medium-chain fatty acids, a decrease in weight was seen, and in some studies, a decrease in waist circumference was found that was statistically significant.

Lime Ginger Shrimp with Coconut oilOther studies found that the medium-chain fatty acids contained in coconut increased fat burning and calorie expenditure in obese men and women, and also led to diminished fat storage.  Another study compared the effect of coconut oil against a standard vegetable oil on metabolism and found that the meal containing coconut oil increased energy expenditure by 48 percent in lean subjects and by 65 percent in obese subjects.  These results are encouraging, but more long-term randomized clinical trials are needed to really understand the effect of coconut oil on weight loss.

Pinapple Coconut MuffinsThere does seem to be enough good evidence in favor of the health benefits of coconut oil to make it a worthwhile substitute for not-so-healthy fats like butter.  Even oils high in omega-6 fatty acids (like vegetable, corn, safflower, and soybean oil) in our diet can be replaced with coconut oil, since the American diet is much too high in omega- 6 fatty acids.

Coconut oil’s unique fatty acid profile makes it highly heat stable and protects it from heat damage with a high heat tolerance.  Most oils that have a lower smoke point denature under high heat, possibly producing trans-fats.  Replace fragile oils, like extra virgin olive oil, with coconut oil when heat is involved making it an even more valuable as a healthy addition to our diet.

Choose unrefined (never refined), extra-virgin coconut oil, which has been processed with cold-pressed technology rather than expeller-pressed, where higher heats through friction are generated.  Oils that are cold-pressed are processed in a heat-controlled environment to keep temperatures below 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  Be sure to also examine both labels of your coconut oil.  Some coconut oils will sound great based on the front label, and yet they hide a list of contaminating ingredients on the back.

Costco carries a pure, unrefined, cold-pressed, organic extra virgin coconut oil by Carrington Farms, for a great price of $15.99 for a 54 oz. jar.  This same brand costs $34.99 for the same size jar if you buy it online and from other retail locations.

Coconut oil Pie CrustIt’s so exciting to finally have a healthy saturated fat that tastes awesome to replace unhealthy butter when baking and cooking.  Coconut oil works well in baked goods like banana breads and brownies.  Try these Pineapple Coconut Muffins for a healthy breakfast or snack.  Coconut oil is also good cooked with vegetables.  It is especially tasty when paired with bitter greens like kale.  You can use it as part of an onion and garlic sauté, where it offers a subtly different but pleasant taste.  Stir-fried dishes, fried rice and roasted veggies, and especially sweet potatoes are great when made with coconut oil.  Popcorn made with coconut oil is delicious.  Baked desserts,  like these Chocolate Soufflés can often be made with equal parts of coconut oil instead of butter.  Try this easy Lime Ginger Shrimp made with coconut oil, as well as this awesome Coconut Oil Pie Crust.

Take January’s (2013) Healthy Challenge and replace butter and fragile, heat-sensitive oils (when heating) with unrefined, cold-pressed, organic extra-virgin coconut oil to take advantage of its potential health benefits.  Coconut oil is going to make 2013 a healthy and delicious year!

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1 Comment to “Coconut Oil: A Healthy Saturated Fat”

  1. Cynthia Owens says:

    Thanks, Judith! It can be confusing and there is so much contradictory information out there about coconut oil. I especially appreciate you showing the product Costco carries to make it easier to find a good form of this at a good price!

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