As registered dietitian nutritionists, we enjoy watching food trends emerge and then seeing how long they last. From locally grown to gluten free to kale, we get a kick out of seeing the supermarket aisles exploding with innovative foods. And unless you’ve been hiding under, well, a coconut shell, you’ve likely seen that coconut oil is getting a lot of attention these days. What’s this craze all about and is it worthy of real estate in your fridge or pantry?
You may have seen the internet buzzing with claims that coconut oil protects against cancer and Alzheimer’s, dissolves kidney stones and will help you to lose excess body fat. But does it really?
The Coconut Advantage
Coconut oils do have benefits. As girls who love the flavor of coconut and remember pleading with our mom to let us have a virgin piña colada, and trading our Halloween candy for Mounds bars, we have to admit we’re pretty happy about this!
First, coconut oil has a high percentage of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. And although this may not mean much to you, it’s actually pretty cool (yep, we’re science nerds). Most oils consist entirely of long-chain triglycerides, or LCTs, and MCTs and LCTs are metabolized in the body differently. MCTs are more likely to be burned as fuel and they slightly raise metabolic rate. So they’re less likely to be circulated through the body and deposited in fat tissues.
And for candy manufacturers, coconut oil is as dreamy as sitting beachside on a tropical island sipping piña coladas. It stays solid at room temperature and doesn’t spoil quickly thanks to its super-high percentage of saturated fat. And let’s face it, that tropical flavor is pretty delicious to most discerning taste buds.
The Facts: The American Heart Association and Nutrition Researchers are Leaving Coconut Under the Shade of the Palm Tree
While coconut oil has no cholesterol and some of its fatty acids are different than the saturated fat found in animal products, it still contains more saturated fat—the main dietary culprit for raising blood cholesterol and clogging arteries—than butter. Yes, numerous studies have shown that coconut oil can raise LDL (your body’s bad cholesterol) and, according to nutrition researchers at Tufts, it induces atherosclerosis (heart disease), too. We know—this breaks our hearts too. The American Heart Association recommends a maximum of 16 grams of saturated fat daily based on a 2,000-calorie diet. Include one-and-a-half tablespoons of coconut oil in your diet daily and you’ve already exceeded the recommendations. And a large percentage of coconut’s saturated fats aren’t the good MCT’s; roughly 40 percent of them are long chain, artery-clogging, saturated fats. Aw, man!
As for coconut oil and weight loss, there just isn’t research to support it.
So What Do You Do if You Really Like Coconut?
While we (and especially our taste buds) remain hopeful that there will be more research to validate our affinity for coconut, at this time, we feel it would be unethical to recommend replacing any of your heart-healthy fats like olive oil for coconut oil, or to recommend adding it to your diet to assist with weight loss. Keep in mind, fat is fat, and coconut oil is still high in calories, which can quickly add up around your waist. However, consider using coconut oil as a condiment rather than your go-to oil or applying it liberally. Fortunately, just a little bit goes a long way in adding yummy flavor and texture. Here are two recipes where a little bit of coconut oil goes a long way:
Bite-sized Cinnamon Rolls
Dark Chocolate and Almond Granola Bar Squares