April 11, 2021

Coconut Oil: What’s the deal?

Let’s tackle a frequently asked question today. Coconut oil. What’s the deal?

Overview

Coconut oil is 100% fat, meaning all the calories in it come from fat (no carbs or protein here), and 80-90% of this is saturated fat which makes it solid/firm at room temperature. The rest is composed of trace amounts of unsaturated fats. Remember fat is made up of fatty acids, and in the case of coconut oil the predominant type (making up about 50%) of saturated fatty acids is lauric acid. 

coconut

Rewind

When we did a run-down on fats, we touched on the fact that fatty acids can be classified as short-, medium- or long-chain. Most fats we consume are considered long-chain fatty acids. As you might imply from the name, these are longer chains that take longer for the body to break down. Medium-chain fatty acids (MCT for medium-chain triglycerides) are shorter and thus can be broken down more quickly and used for energy. They go straight to the liver (like we talked about with carbs) vs most fats first get absorbed into the lymphatic system prior to the bloodstream. Because of this, MCTs can be used for energy more quickly and may be less likely to be stored as fat. That being said, as with anything when we have an excess in energy it will be stored as fat ultimately. 

 

Okay back to lauric acid, the predominant type of fatty acid found in coconut oil. Lauric acid is chemically classified as an MCT, however it is longer than most other medium-chain fatty acids and it behaves more like a long-chain fatty acid. What does this mean? Well, all the buzz over the MCT content in coconut oil isn’t quite deserved. 

 

Research

The research shows us that coconut oil generally raises both HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol or the one we want to be higher), and LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol or the one we want to be lower). Because of this, it is not considered a “heart-healthy” food since these changes increase risk for cardiovascular disease.

A recent meta-analysis published in 2020 analyzed 16 clinical trials that lasted at least 2 weeks and compared the effects of coconut oil with other fats. This analysis showed that coconut oil significantly increased total, HDL and LDL cholesterol, but did not significantly change C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation), fasting blood sugar or measures of body fat compared to nontropical vegetable oils (like canola, safflower, soybean, olive oil). 

 

Recommendations

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 recommend limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of calories per day by replacing them with unsaturated fats, particularly polyunsaturated fats. So for example with a person who eats on average around 2,000 calories per day, this would come out to 22 grams of saturated fat per day. American Heart Association recommends limiting calories from saturated fat to about 5-6% per day. This means a person eating on average about 2,000 calories per day would aim to limit to about 13 grams of saturated fat per day.

 

What does this mean?

One tablespoon of coconut oil contains about 14 grams of fat (13 of which are saturated). So maybe don’t down it by the tablespoon??

If you have a family or personal history of high cholesterol or other cardiac risk factors, it may be a good idea to limit coconut oil overall. Save it for times you want that coconut flavor or when it goes particularly well with a dish. And then savor it! Enjoy it. Personally (Kelly here), I like using coconut oil to sauté apples to put over warm oatmeal, and I use it occasionally in baking adventures.

If you have no family or personal history of cardiac risk factors and you get regular labs at your doctor’s office that are within normal limits, perhaps you have a bit more room if you do want to include it more often.

Bottom Line: You know that phrase “diversify your portfolio” when talking finance things? Well, diversify your cooking oils! As with many things in life, moderation is key. 

 

Sources:

Coconut Oil. Harvard School of Public Health: The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard. edu/nutritionsource/food-features/coconut-oil/. Accessed March 16, 2021.

Neelakantan N, Seah JY, van Dam RM. The Effect of Coconut Oil Consumption on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials. Circulation. 2020 Mar 10;141(10):803-14.

Saturated Fat. American Heart Association. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/saturated-fats. Accessed March 16, 2021. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.

Photo Credit: <a href=”https://www.freepik.com/photos/table”>Table photo created by Racool_studio – www.freepik.com</a>

Photo Credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/gBxUqEpBPsI

About the Author: Kelly Wagner, MS, RD, LDN

I'm a Registered Dietitian (RD) based in Chicago, IL. I have worked in both inpatient and outpatient settings, including dialysis, ICU, as well as one-on-one nutrition counseling and groups.

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3 Comments

  1. John April 14, 2021 at 3:17 pm - Reply

    You shed Interesting positive light on coconut oil. But I’m curious about coconut milk, seeing that it stars in Thai and Indian curries, favorite cuisines of many. How might your advice about coconut oil apply to coconut milk? Any good alternatives or cutbacks for coconut milk in the classic one pan curry dishes?

    • Kelly April 14, 2021 at 10:51 pm - Reply

      Hi John! Thanks for stopping by! You bring up a greally great question…perhaps a future blog post topic too 🙂 Coconut milk can add such a delicious, rich flavor to curries, stews, soups, etc. When cooking with it, we recommend ensuring you are buying an unsweetened version, and definitely make sure the product is coconut MILK. It’s often sold next to coconut cream and cream of coconut. All of these look very similar, and the later is blended with tons of extra sugars (often used in pina coladas). Not only would this be a sugar bomb, but it also is not the flavor profile we are going for in a curry.

      While coconut oil is pure fat, coconut milk is the flesh of coconut blended with water (and sometimes stabilizers), so this water content means less saturated fat per tablespoon than coconut oil. There is also something called “lite” coconut milk, sold next to the others. The biggest difference between “lite” and regular is in the water content. “Lite” coconut milk has more water added, and also stabilizers like guar gum for texture improvement (which many brands include in regular coconut milk as well). Because of these differences, “lite” may taste grainy and/or more watery than regular. If you want the richest flavor, regular is your best bet. You could experiment with both and see if you notice a difference in a given recipe. It will likely depend on how much of the coconut milk you are using.

      For example, if you use a 13.5 oz can of coconut milk for a coconut curry serving 6, that comes out to about 9 grams of saturated fat per serving. If you don’t also have a big steak or tons of animal products that day, you very well could stay within the saturated fat guidelines/suggestions for daily intake, PLUS you would get to enjoy the rich, delicious flavor of regular coconut milk!! If you are like ehhh I want to cut back a bit, then using a can of “lite” coconut milk in its place would give you about 3 grams of saturated fat per serving, but it may impact the texture/flavor of the dish. Experimenting with recipes is really the best way to figure out what YOU like and what makes YOU feel good!

  2. John April 15, 2021 at 5:19 pm - Reply

    Thanks for the detailed feedback Kelly. I wasn’t aware of the differences between milks and creams, and lite versus regular milk. I will surely experiment more.

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