A nutritionist busts common myths about coconut oil

Coconut oil is nature's bounty and can be used for external application on the skin as well for cooking. Get your facts right on this versatile oil.

coconut oil in glass jar

From becoming a trend to being a personal choice, the expensive and dandified coconut oil has always been an integral part of Indian traditions and cuisine from coastal communities to the urban dweller.

I too have grown up savouring rich coconut milk gravies, coconut mithai and of course, the South Indian thindi [breakfast] is incomplete without a lavish sprinkle of fresh grated coconut. It is not an uncommon practice for Malayalis to consume most curries only after a bountiful splash of coconut oil.

However, the confusion of the coconut oil persists, as do the dynamic dietary guidelines. Here is an attempt to simplify the science by performing a reality check.

Myth: Coconut oil increases only bad cholesterol [LDL]

Fact: Excessive intake of saturated fats and man-made trans fat coupled with lack of exercise and poor weight management increases bad cholesterol [LDL] and triglycerides. However a modest amount of coconut oil increases good cholesterol [HDL] alongside increasing bad cholesterol. So in effect, it does no harm if had in moderation.

Myth: Coconut oil increases the risk of heart disease

Fact: Heart disease is influenced by several factors including genetics, body weight, lifestyle choices such as smoking, the type of fat in the diet and surplus intake of polished grains and sugar. Excessive intake of saturated fats does contribute to increasing the risk of heart disease. However, the latest recommendations suggest dietary modifications with a shift to heart healthy oils. The native choices of kacchi ghani or cold pressed vegetable oils like sesame [til], mustard [sarson] with embracing Mediterranean diet with plenty of whole grains, pulses, nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables and reducing sugar intake will help to reduce the risk of heart disease. People with heart disease and diabetes are advised to moderate overall saturated fat intake.

List of foods high in saturated fats:

  • Coconut oil
  • Butter
  • Palm oil
  • Red meat
  • Whole milk
  • Cream
  • Cheese
  • Margarine

Myth: Coconut oil increases metabolism

Fact: Oils are a blend with a combination of different types of fatty acids. Coconut oil is majorly saturated fats. However it does contain small amounts of fatty acids called medium chain triglycerides [MCT] which are easily and directly absorbed into the liver and get used up for energy immediately. Thereby they do not get stored as fat in the body. MCTs are beneficial for brain function too, and especially helpful in epilepsy and Alzheimer’s.

Myth: Coconut oil is bad for health

Fact: The processing of coconut oil determines its quality. Cold pressed coconut oil is derived from crushed fresh coconut flesh. It retains flavour, aroma, antioxidant polyphenols and vitamin E, which have anti-inflammatory properties. It also contains lauric acid which is known for its antibacterial properties.

On the other hand, refined coconut oil is filtered to remove impurities and therefore has higher smoke point, making it the most ideal oil for deep frying which also enhances the keeping quality [shelf life] of the food as the saturated fats prevent its spoilage.

Myth : Coconut oil leads to weight gain

Fact: Excess calorie intake and less physical activity leads to weight gain. Some studies have suggested that coconut oil promotes a reduction in waist circumference and abdominal obesity. There are suggestions for use of coconut oil for weight loss, as it leads to satiety and reduced calorie intake. But how much coconut oil is safe for consumption each day? The recommendation for saturated fat intake is less than seven per cent of total calories for the day. If you have higher levels of HDL it is best to restrict the total intake of saturated fats to 5 – 6 per cent.

For a 2000 kcal diet, the recommendation of saturated fat intake is about 120 – 140 kcals which is equivalent to a total amount of about 3 tsp [15g]. More importantly, the emphasis should be on saturated fat intake in totality along with other hidden sources that may be consumed. It is best to restrict coconut oil [alternatively ghee or butter] to ½ – 1 tsp each day based on the intake of other saturated fats.

Other uses of coconut oil

Besides cooking, the versatile coconut oil is used for various other purposes. To list a few:

  • Oil pulling
  • Skin moisturising
  • Hair care products
  • Lip balm
  • Make-up remover

Myth: Olive oil is better than coconut oil

Fact: Olive oil is a heart healthy choice owing to its monounsaturated fats and high antioxidant property. Virgin olive oil cannot be used for cooking and even the filtered variation is best subjected to light heat. On the other hand, coconut oil is stable at high temperatures and can be used as a replacement for baking in addition to cooking. So essentially olive oil and coconut oil are two different entities most suitable for their individual attributes.

So do you need to heed to the hype of the coconut oil conundrum? Too much is too bad? Less is more? Nah! Aptly follow the wisdom and culture of your homeland being mindful of wholesome food and enriching lifestyle to ensure a healthy happy self.

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Geetha G H
Geetha is a Bangalore based registered dietitian, certified diabetes educator, one of the very few sports nutritionist from International Olympic Committee ( IOC ), with diverse experience of over 15 years in academia, nutritional counselling, lifestyle coaching, clinical nutrition, food safety, corporate workshops and seminars, clinical research, a nutrition columnist for well renowned health magazines and wellness websites, a university first ranker with several gold medals at both under-graduation and post-graduation, passionate about yoga, preventive and performance nutrition.

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