I tend to sigh when I hear about another food craze, they hit the high street and someone makes a lot of money from our desire to improve our health. All it takes is a few celebrities to get on the band wagon or one of the diet regimens to add it their miracle list and they spread like wild fire. So I thought I would expel some myths and try to make some sense of the latest fad; Coconut Oil.
Marketing promotes coconut oil as a panacea, the elixir of life; that it can relieve stress, help you lose weight, fights viruses, helps reduce the effects of alzeihmers, and on the list goes. What is also interesting is the people who are extolling its virtues are the people selling it. A Weight Loss company for example is suggesting it speeds the metabolism, but they will profit directly from this claim.
The Sales Pitch for Weight Loss ?
Want a nice shortcut to staying thin? Coconut milk’s high fiber content helps fill you up fast, so you eat less and still get the nutritional benefits of a full meal. (Just don't overuse it.) At this point those of you grasping at any straw with regards to weight loss will switch off to the bad bits and focus on the above sentence. But for the sake of your health and piggy bank, read on ..................
The Calories and Nutritional content:
Approx. 120 calories per tablespoon; all types of oil contain very similar calorific values, therefore coconut oil is calorically dense, so if you are trying to manage or lose weight, you need to monitor how much you have in the same way you do with other fats and oils. The marketing often gives the impression you can use it more liberally, but as a Nutritionist I would reiterate, you must still manage the quantity.
Coconut milk is super high in potassium, magnesium and phosphorus. We hear a lot about calcium, but phosphorus is the unsung hero of building strong bones. So it does have some merits with skeletal health.
Fats are needed for good health, in fact some of them are essential, hence the term essential fatty acids (EFAs). The EFAs are unsaturated so better absorbed and utilised by the body. These fats literally help your body clear the bloodstream of bad cholesterol or LDLs. Coconut Oil could therefore contribute to raising cholesterol and the problems associated with this.
Interestingly Coconut Oil is one of the fats which is higher in the saturated fats (or bad fats) which promotes the production of bad cholesterol.
Fats are needed to help us utilise the fat soluble vitamins A,D and E, so mustn’t be excluded, however it is the type of fat we consume which is important. When oils are extracted from their ‘capsule’ in this case the white flesh of a coconut, you are removing the fibre and other vitamins and minerals (including A,D and E) which help you process the oil effectively.
Coconut oil is more than 90 per cent saturated fat, or about 11.8 grams per 15 millilitres (one tablespoon), compared to about 63 per cent or 7.2 grams for the same amount of butter. As mentioned above, saturated fats are associated with increasing high cholesterol which can lead to heart disease, stroke, even bad behaviour in children !
Partially hydrogenated coconut oils are not natural and are associated with increased risk of several chronic diseases.
Eating within your Culture:
It is well worth remembering that other culture’s diets differ from ours, so if you compare the Western diet with the Asian diet for example, there are huge differences. The Asian diet might use Coconut Oil throughout their diet, however they are not also eating cheese, chocolate, steaks, bacon, fast foods, large portions, smoothies, so the effect of the oil on our physiology and weight will be different.
“I don’t think any health professional, including myself, is going to tell you to increase the level of saturated fat in your diet,” says Len Piche, a nutritional scientist, registered dietitian and professor in the Foods and Nutrition program at Brescia University College at Western University in London.
Cooking and Uses:
Coconut Oil will of course have a ‘taste’ which is very distinctive. The oil copes very well with high temperatures in that the trans fatty acids don’t break down easily (creating toxins and carcinogens), so it is very good for frying. There is a variety - “expeller pressed” coconut oil, which does not have such a distinct taste, its virtually removed, but that does make the oil processed, so lacking in nutritional value, but still containing the calories.
A clinical query search for “Alzheimer’s coconut oil” on PubMed yielded no results. “There are no peer-reviewed articles addressing research on coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease.” Even the Alzheimer’s Association says: “A few people have reported that coconut oil helped the person with Alzheimer’s, but there’s never been any clinical testing of coconut oil for Alzheimer’s, and there’s no scientific evidence that it helps.”
Huge swaths of forest are being cut down, villages destroyed and people displaced in order to provide an oil, where there is very little scientific evidence to corroborate the health claims associated with it.
While coconuts can be grown in Hawaii and Florida, the US for example continues to import the majority of its coconut products due to the heightened demand and lower cost. So even though it is popular and “exotic,” just remember how much it really does cost to import a product from across the globe just to give you a nice little coconutty treat here at home.
Sheeps Lanolin, which is in abundance in the UK, whilst not an exotic and romantic alternative, provides the same carrier qualities for creams and lotions in the beauty trade.
There is no justification for adding it to the diet on top of the usual consumption of other fats. There is no credible evidence to support any of the many health benefits claimed for using it as a supplement.
Buy wisely and question its ethics.
Victoria Shorland (MBANT, MCNHC, RSM)
Nutritionist & Allergy Consultant, Bariatric Nutritionist
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