There have been some articles appearing in the Media recently about coconut oil, which has prompted some questions. As with everything we are always going to hear the pros and cons of something, especially when it has become such a popular ingredient with people literally going coco-NUTS for it.
I always like to stress that it's all about balance and everything in moderation. Too much of anything isn't good for us.
Coconut oil has so many incredible properties such as it being a medium-chain fatty acid and also containing lauric acid. If you google these terms, you can read of their benefits.
Something to remember is that not all fats are equal.
Coconut oil is a saturated fat and because of this it is a stable fat that is non-toxic when heated. As it heats, it produces less aldehydes (which are carcinogenic) than oils which are high in polyunsaturated fats, due to the difference in structure. Unrefined coconut oil has a smoke point of 178C. This is why it's great as a replacement for processed oils in cooking.
Coconut oil is not the only fat you should incorporate into your diet. I have extra virgin olive oil most days as a dressing, as well as flaxseed oil and avocado oil. Omega-3s are essential to our diet and have a whole host of benefits with some sources of omega-3s being flaxseed, walnuts and oily fish (mackerel, salmon and sardines).
One recent article in the Press used an image of chips being fried in an oil. I’d like to point out some of the ways this image was used to sensationalise the article. How often do you see chips being deep-fried in coconut oil? What oil is usually used in frying chips? And again, what are chips? Are they a fat? Are they a saturated fat? What they are using here is an image which we all associate with being an unhealthy choice and the misleading implication that coconut oil was used. Chips are more of a processed food. What is important is looking at the quantity of processed foods we may be eating. These foods will usually be high in sugar, fat and salt. High energy intake, with little nutritional value, are the kinds of foods we need to be aware of, especially the quantity we eat.
We’re continuously told conflicting information in the Media, which in turn causes confusion and uncertainty. Read the news and use that information to do your own research allowing you to make an informed, rounded decision.
Sometimes the people who write the articles may have no prior background within the health world (medical, dietician, registered nutritionists, etc.) so may choose sections which will cause more traction. We are constantly fed ‘this is the new wonder food’ only for it to be then demonised, then it’s touted again for its benefits and then demonised again… it’s like a rollercoaster.
The article which this is based on is titled ‘Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association’ and it was published in the journal Circulation. It’s been noted as well that within any research, it is easy to cherry pick certain bits of information to suit your views. Out of this 17 page article, half a page is focused on coconut oil, so why is this the only part hitting the news?
In the article mentioned above, they state that in the mid-1950s it was found that replacing saturated fats from animal sources with vegetable oils, substantially reduced serum cholesterol levels. Another study also found that people who eat less saturated fat, eat more carbohydrates, or unsaturated fats. However, it was also found that the replacement of saturated fats for carbohydrates (especially refined), had no significant benefit to cardiovascular disease risk. So should there be more focus on making sure individuals get the right type of carbohydrates when swapping?
Another point to note is that it is extremely difficult in studies using humans to guarantee consistency as there are variables which may alter effects. This is known as confounding variables – for example, people may not be totally honest when talking about what they eat, or they may forget, did they smoke, do they drink, what is their sugar intake, what are their physical activity levels? All of these may also have an impact on risk of cardiovascular disease making it hard to pinpoint one particular thing.
Another study found that, when looking at coconut oil, butter and safflower, butter raised LDLs more than coconut oil, and both raised LDLs more than safflower. However, there was no significant difference between HDL. Coconut oil also lead to a significant lowering of triglyceride levels. A systematic review found no difference in raising LDL between coconut oil, butter, beef fat or palm oil. It even says, “Clinical trials that compared direct effects on CVD of coconut oil and other dietary oils have not been reported”. This quote essentially states that they currently do not have a direct causal link between coconut oil and cardiovascular disease. So technically the statement that it is worse, does not entirely make sense.
The report went on to say, “Finally, we note that a trial has never been conducted to test the effect on CHD (coronary heart disease) outcomes of a low-fat diet that increases intake of healthful nutrient-dense carbohydrates and fibre-rich foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes that are now recommended in dietary guidelines.” – Taken from the research.
Whenever reading any article which is based on research, if possible find that source of research and have a look for yourself. It’s also a good idea to look at the bottom of the research, after the conclusion, and see what the conflicts of interest are and who is the source of funding. Research isn’t cheap and especially if you are non-profit you’re going to need funding from somewhere. Or, the research could have been funded by sponsors and if this is the case, check who the sponsor is.
Balance is key. Research is key. Make your own informed decisions. Speak to a nutritionist. Get different views and remember fat isn't the enemy! Fat is essential to our health.
I think one of the main things to take from this is to be aware and do ask questions. Plus the quantity for anything is important to look at. As we always say, everything in moderation.
Nutrition is an ever changing and ever evolving field, so it’s best to keep up to date through your own research.
The following articles may be of interest:
Daisy Buckingham ANutr Registered Associate Nutritionist
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Daisy has a Master's Degree in Public Health Nutrition, which is Association for Nutrition (AFN) accredited. She, also, has a BSc degree in Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience; and has completed an AFN accredited Diet Specialist Nutrition course. She is Lucy's sister and is the Lucy Bee voice on all aspects of nutrition and its effect on the body. In addition to this, Daisy is shadowing a nutritionist in Harley Street and working for an NHS funded project, The Diabetes Prevention Programme.