Saturated fat is bad! No, only certain kinds! Wait, they’re all fine; vegetable oils are bad! Forget fats; it’s the carbohydrates that are killing us!
It’s no wonder nutrition confuses so many people. Sometimes even I feel lost in all those news stories about the “latest research.”
Coconut oil has been, for me, one of those challenging topics to wrap my head around. All of my years of schooling taught me that saturated fat increases heart disease risk, and coconut oil is about as saturated as fats get. Now, everyone and their mother is using coconut oil because it’s full of “heart healthy” fats. Where is all of this coming from? Who is correct?
Has my entire education been a sham?
Let’s start with the facts…
All fats contain a mixture of fatty acids, which can be saturated, monounsaturated, omega-6 polyunsaturated, or omega-3 polyunsaturated. Humans like neat categories, though, so we divide up food sources of fat according to the predominant fatty acid found inside of it. For example, coconut oil is considered a saturated fat because 92 percent of its fatty acids are saturated. As a comparison, butter is only 66 percent saturated, and we consider that to be a saturated fat, too. Clearly, not all saturated fats are identical.
In fact, saturated fats can be further subdivided by length. Some saturated fatty acids are considered long, some are medium, and some are short. Anywhere from 55-70 percent of coconut oil’s fatty acids are medium chain saturated (referred to as “MCT” from here out) and 22-33 percent are long chain saturated, compared with 8 percent and 39 percent, respectively, for butter. More on this in a minute.
For a long time, we thought saturated fat was the be-all and end-all of heart health, so a diet high in saturated fat was a big deal. (Shameless self-promotion: You can read more about that whole controversy in my butter-versus-margarine article.) Now many people say that’s not quite right. They’re generally the people who endorse eating coconut oil.
So what do these folks have to say?
– MCTs are unique because they aren’t treated the same as longer saturated fats in the body. Evidence suggests they are excellent sources of energy, and some claim they do not pose adverse health risks. They may even have health benefits. Remember, about two-thirds of coconut oil’s fats are MCTs.
– Certain native islander cultures have used coconut oil as a dietary staple for a long, long time, and their rates of disease are distinctly lower than ours.
BEFORE YOU BUY THAT COCONUT OIL, THOUGH…
A lot of those studies I linked to above are just a smidge flawed. Some are old. Others are small or not representative of the general population’s demographics, and they gloss over some key points.
– Just because certain cultures consume coconut oil healthfully does not mean that people of all descents respond to it the same way. More and more, we’re learning that different diets may be optimal for different people, and it has a lot to do with genetics.
– Many studies look at MCTs in isolation, not in the context of actual food. If, perhaps, a food existed that was 100 percent MCT, then we might be onto something. However, we’ve already established that foods are complex and made up of many different types of fats. We need to do more studies on food, not isolated nutrients.
– Other studies claim there is insufficient evidence to promote MCT and coconut oil at this time, and for now we should treat coconut oil like any other saturated fat.
– Speaking of saturated fat, it might not be as detrimental as we once thought, but that’s assuming that we maintain a moderate total fat intake. Even the studies that support the use of coconut oil tend to say that their findings are not meant to be extrapolated to diets in which more than about 35 percent of calories come from fat.
THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT OR FLOP?
If we’re talking about putting coconut oil on everything, then it’s a FLOP in my book. But if you want to start replacing some of the other saturated fats in your diet with coconut oil, I’d call it FIT.
It comes down to the individual. Did your ancestors eat a lot of coconut oil? Is it your primary source of saturated fat, or do you also consume red and processed meats, high-fat dairy, and baked goods? What does the rest of your diet look like? How active are you?
These things matter.
When it comes to coconut oil (and life!), remember the three Cs: context, caution, and common sense. They rarely steer you wrong.