Healthy or Hype: Coconut Oil

Welcome to another edition of Healthy or Hype! Our featured guest this time…

…Coconut Oil

Maybe you have a cousin who swishes it instead of brushing their teeth. Maybe you have a coworker who sleeps with it in their hair and swears that’s what keeps it so soft and shiny. Maybe your uncle puts it in his morning coffee and calls this concoction “Bulletproof”. Maybe you just heard about it on daytime TV as the next “miracle” food.

Whatever your reasons, I’m here to clear up some of the junk and bring to light the truth!

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Chemistry

Predominately composed of saturated fatty acids, a good amount of which are medium chain fatty acids (MCTs). The MCTs are further broken down (present in the greatest to the least amounts as follows) into lauric, myristic, caprylic, capric, and caproic acids.

Most of the time, when people are exalting the health benefits of coconut oil, they are referring to the MCTs present in large numbers.

Because of its high saturated fat content, it is slow to oxidize. This means that it can last for months without going bad. However, it is also due to these high levels of saturated fat why many health groups, like the World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, and the American Heart Association, advise against regular consumption.

Unlike most oils, coconut oil is solid at room temperatures and melts at 76deg F. I keep mine stored in the cupboard and in the summer months it usually stays liquid. In the winter months, it usually stays solid. If I need to use it, I simply measure by weighing out the difference that I need and then melt the solid coconut oil in the microwave until it becomes liquid. Another option is to just take a whole bunch out, melt it, and then measure out the amount you need and put the rest back in the jar.

1 Tablespoon of coconut oil contains 126 calories and 14 grams of fat (12 grams saturated fat, 0.8 grams monounsaturated fat, 0.2 grams polyunsaturated fat), 0 grams of carbohydrates, and 0 grams of protein. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, coconut oil also contains very small amounts of iron, vitamin E, and vitamin K.

Cooking

This is the biggest area, aside from beauty products, that you’ll find coconut oil being used. It’s pretty versatile! It can withstand fairly high heats, replace butter in baked goods, and can add a subtle flavor to dishes. Because of it’s heat stability, sauteing, frying, baking, and roasting are suitable options. Also, if you aren’t a fan of the taste of coconut, you can find refined coconut oil rather than unrefined or virgin coconut oil. The processing removes some of the inherent coconut flavor and can actually tolerate higher heats (450deg F vs. 350deg for virgin).

Vegan bakers rejoice! Simply replace the amount of butter with 25% less of the same amount in coconut oil and you too can enjoy yummy treats like those in the recipe linked below.

slide_423210_5437836_free.jpg15 Recipes That’ll Show You How to Bake with Coconut Oil
(pictured: Soft and Puffy Peanut Butter Cookies by Averie Cooks)

Household

Coconut oil has been used to make laundry detergent, polish leather and wood, get sticky stuff out of the carpet, and clean shower scum. It also claims to help remove stains from carpet and upholstery and remove rust and those pesky labels that only half tear off when you buy them and then just look awful. *rant over*

Beauty

Coconut oil has been used to make soap, toothpaste, shaving cream, hair masks, lip balm, deodorant, and moisturizer.

Ever heard of oil pulling? Yeah… I think it sounds a little gross. And I’m going to be real with you – I don’t do it nor do I plan on starting. Sorry all you oil pulling fanatics out there!

Oil pulling involves swishing about 1 Tablespoon of coconut oil in your mouth for about 20 minutes and then spitting it out (not down the drain, please and don’t swallow it!). Although people have been doing this for thousands of years, recent studies have shown that oil pulling helps protect against gingivitis, plaque, and the microorganisms that can cause bad breath. Why? Because most of these microorganisms are single-celled. Cells are covered with a lipid (fat) membrane. If you’ve taken a science class before you know that like attracts like. The fat in the membrane naturally attracts to the fat in the oil. When you spit the oil out, it takes those little buggers with it!

Oil pulling probably shouldn’t completely replace brushing and flossing as well as routine visits to the dentist. It won’t reverse the effects of tooth decay and damage.

**Spitting the oil out in the drain may cause blockages and clogs since coconut oil is solid and room temperature. Spit it out in a separate container and then throw it out in the trash. Also, don’t reuse the oil. One swish session, then done. And if you even considered using that same oil for cooking later, well, that’s just icky. Shame on you.**

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Health

Spoiler Alert: It’s not a miracle food. It will not solve all of your health- and wellness-related woes. You should not cover every morsel of food and every inch of your skin in coconut oil and expect to become immortal.

Several studies have examined changes in fat loss or metabolism with coconut oil compared to other oils or control groups. Effects were modestly beneficial at best.

Coconut oil seemed to increase metabolism for a short period of time. Some studies have shown that coconut oil may help decrease body fat and waist circumference without intentionally reducing calories and may also help those on a calorie-restricted diet to lose abdominal fat.

Other studies have focused specifically on MCT oil (which makes up about 65% of coconut oil) and these showed that MCT oil increased metabolism, reduced appetite (and therefore calorie intake), and promoted fat loss.

More studies focused on blood lipid levels to see the effect of different fats on cholesterol and triglycerides. Coconut oil was found to increase HDL cholesterol (the “good” or “heart healthy” kind of cholesterol that you want to be higher) more than unsaturated fat did and at least as much as butter = maybe good. Coconut oil was found to raise total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (the “bad” kind of cholesterol shown to be correlated with a higher risk of heart disease) more than safflower oil and beef fat, but less than soybean oil and butter = maybe not so good. Triglycerides did not change much in response to coconut oil vs. other kinds of oils in diets with similar fat content.

Also, markers of inflammation and oxidative stress decreased more in people who consumed coconut oil compared to people who consumed other oils = yay! However, these studies did not look at LDL particle count or ApoB which have been shown to be more accurate markers for heart disease risk than the standard LDL cholesterol measurement that is more commonly used.

So, while coconut oil does seem to help overweight people lose abdominal fat, and appears to at least temporarily increase metabolic rate, it still contains 130 calories per tablespoon and this increase in metabolism and fat loss can easily be offset if serving size and portion is not kept in mind. Also, individual differences will always be present – just because one person shows improvement in blood lipids or body composition from consuming coconut oil does not mean that the next person will see those same benefits.

Unrefined vs. Refined

Refined: Bland and odorless. Most commonly produced and least expensive coconut oil. Smoke point of 400deg F. Retains the same fatty acid profile as virgin coconut oil.

Unrefined (“Virgin”, “Extra Virgin”): Least refined. Smells and tastes like coconut. Highest levels of antioxidants. Most commonly studied in health research. Most expensive coconut oil. Smoke point of 350deg F.

So, which should you use? Just depends on your budget, what you are using it for, and what flavor you want.

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Do you use coconut oil in cooking? What’s your favorite recipe?
Have you ever tried oil pulling?
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Healthy or Hype: Apple Cider Vinegar
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