Thursday, September 3, 2015

Q: I have started noticing more coconut oil and coconut oil-containing products at the grocery store and have heard that it is healthier than other oils. Is this true?

By Destiny Howard, MS, RDN, LD, Clinical Dietitian 

A: This is a great question. Recently it has become hard not to notice the increasing popularity of coconut oil. Marketing claims can be found on websites, in magazine articles or books, and even on TV. Supporters of coconut oil argue it has many health benefits, including the prevention of certain diseases.

However, there are some important facts to consider before you decide to stock your pantry with these products:

1) Coconut oil is composed mainly of lauric acid and myristic acid, which are saturated fatty acids.
• Saturated fatty acids are also the main components of butter and shortening.
• So aside from popular health claims, it is important to know that coconut oil can increase the levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) which is a "bad" cholesterol that can increase a person's risk for heart disease or complicate existing heart disease.

2) Of all of the health claims in the media that pertain to coconut oil, the only well-researched benfit of coconut oil with strong evidence at this time is that it can raise HDL (high-density lipoprotein) levels.
• HDL is a "good" cholesterol that can help 'carry' bad cholesterol out of the bloodstream.
• This is a good thing, however, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as those found in olive oil and canola oil can achieve the same effect while also lowering LDL levels instead of raising them. And an additional bonus: olive oil is slightly lower in calories than coconut oil!

The main idea is that while the jury's still out on many of the health benefits of coconut oil, it does have a unique and wonderful flavor and there's no harm in using it on occasion. Additionally, it's HDL-boosting effect may make it "less bad" than other some of the other saturated fats such as butter or shortening. However, I would still recommend using it only ocassionally, especially for someone who currently has or is at a higher risk for heart disease. Heart healthy nutrition recommendations include replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil or canola oil.

For nutritional counseling, Norman Regional Health System offers the guidance of registered dietitians. Those interested can schedule an appointment for an assessment with a referral from their family physician.