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WNY dietitian: Coconut oil not what it's cracked up to be

Emily Wood – Contributing Writer

When all the claims came out about coconut oil being healthy, I must admit I was a bit confused. In college, my fellow dietitian classmates and I were taught that the fat in coconut oil was a “bad” fat. Yes, that was about 10 years ago, and things do change. But did the type of fat in coconut oil change, making it now healthy for you?

What are the types of fats?

To paint a clearer picture about fat, there are two kinds: unsaturated and saturated. Unsaturated fat is the “good” fat found in oils, nuts and avocados. Saturated fat is the “bad” fat found in butter, dairy, meat, and tropical oils, such as coconut. High saturated fat intake is associated with increasing LDL cholesterol levels in our blood, which clogs our arteries and increases our risk of heart disease.

Why would the saturated fat in coconut oil be any different?

One tablespoon of coconut oil contains almost as much saturated fat as the daily recommended allowance, says registered dietitian Emily Wood, of the Town of Tonawanda.

There have been many claims made that coconut oil can help decrease belly fat, boost brain function, and reduce hunger, among other things. The truth however, is that the research about these claims is controversial. For a food that is 120 calories and 12 grams of fat for 1 tablespoon, it is hard to believe that consuming coconut oil on a regular basis will slim your midsection. Adding more calorie-dense foods to your diet hardly seems like a good plan for shedding the extra pounds and establishing lifelong healthy eating habits.

What about the MCTs?

MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) are a shorter chain fatty acid that is readily oxidized by the liver. Most of the health claims for coconut oil stem from their MCT content. Interestingly enough though, only about 15 percent of the saturated fat in coconut oil has MCTs, leaving the other 85 percent as mostly LDL raising saturated fatty acids.

Recommendations for coconut oil

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Per the American Heart Association, based on a 2,000-calorie-per day diet, 5 percent to 6 percent of your calories should come from saturated fat, which equates to about 120 calories, or 13 grams of saturated fat, per day. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains about 12 grams of saturated fat, so unless you are following a whole foods, plant-based diet, you can expect to well exceed that number within a day through eating other saturated fat-containing foods such as meat and dairy.

Conclusion

Coconut oil should not be added to an unaltered, unhealthy eating plan, or eaten in excess, due to its high saturated fat content. If you are trying to shed those extra pounds or combat heart disease, its best to eat all oils in limited amounts, especially saturated fat-containing oils such as coconut. For those healthy individuals following a healthy eating plan, coconut oil could certainly be used from time to time to mix things up in the kitchen.

Emily Wood is a registered dietitian in Western New York. Visit her website at emilywoodrd.com or email her at emily@emilywoodrd.com.

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