Not sure if birds or bees do it, but it seems celebrities, chefs, and even some health professionals do it more and more these days – they eat, or at least recommend, coconut oil.
I don’t personally consume coconut oil – not because of any thoughts I have about it one way or another, but because I’ve never tasted it or been exposed to it. But it’s something that has garnered more and more attention when it comes to media headlines, so it’s definitely something worth taking a look at.
What’s in it?
In a nut shell (forgive the pun), coconut oil, like other oils, is rich in calories and fat. One tablespoon packs in 117 calories and 13.6 grams of total fat; of that, most – about 11.8 grams – is saturated (the kind of fat usually associated with clogging arteries and promoting heart disease). It also has about one gram of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat (usually deemed as “healthy fats”) combined.
At first glance, the stats on coconut oil look appealing. For one, most of the saturated fat it contains is in the form of lauric acid. There’s some evidence that lauric acid doesn’t adversely affect blood cholesterol levels (and promote heart disease) the way saturated fats in butter or other animal fats do.
In a Huffington Post piece about saturated, David Katz, MD summed it up well by saying “There is increasing evidence that lauric acid – a very short saturated fat molecule – may also be innocuous…the jury is still out on the health effects of its use.”
Another perk: Unlike butter or other animal foods, coconut oil contains no cholesterol, which is certainly an attribute for those looking to make more heart-healthy food choices.
But what about weight loss? Is coconut oil the magic bullet?
Where’s the proof?
When I googled “coconut oil and weight loss,” I generated 1.1 million results. But when I took a closer look for peer-reviewed scientific research to support a coconut oil/weight loss connection, I came up very short. I was surprised, however, to find a nice roundup of peer reviewed research on coconutoil.com.
The most recent human study mentioned on the site was one in which a relatively small sample of women was instructed to consume a reduced calorie diet and walk 50 minutes a day for 12 weeks. They took coconut oil or soybean oil in supplement form (not as cooking oil used during meals). The study showed that while all participants lost weight, only the coconut oil supplement group lost weight specifically from their mid-section (their waist circumference went down).
The bottom line
We need far more studies than the one above to conclude that consuming coconut oil can enhance weight loss. But if you want to consume coconut oil because you like the taste – and perhaps you want a more healthful alternative to butter or spreads made with trans fats (also known to promote heart disease), in my opinion, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t try it. But the key is to consume it – like all other high calorie dietary fats – in small amounts to keep your total calorie intake in check, especially if you’re trying to lose weight.
What does “in small amounts” really mean, you ask? To be prudent, you can follow current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommendations (they’re spelled out for you on the MyPlate web site). They count coconut oil as solid fat. For a 1,600 calorie a day dietary pattern, the maximum SOFA calories (calories from solid fats and added sugars) are 121 calories (that equals about 1 tablespoon of coconut oil); for a 2,000 calorie pattern, the allotment is 258 calories (about 2 tablespoons of coconut oil).
Keep in mind you may not want to have all your SOFA calories from coconut oil (for example, you may want to have a slice of cheese on your sandwich, have some steak, or dare I say some ice cream or other sweets). In that case, stick to 1 to 2 teaspoons of coconut oil daily (or when the fancy strikes you), if you choose to include it in your diet.
If you’re wondering what type of coconut oil you should buy, culinary nutritionist and author Jackie Newgent recommends unrefined organic coconut oil to use when baking or cooking at a moderate (not high) temperature and you want a ‘coconutty’ flavor. She adds, “When naturally unrefined and organic, I know the oil hasn’t been chemically processed. There may be little nutritional difference between unrefined and refined coconut oil, but I prefer a less processed oil as there could be greater antioxidant potential.”
Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN is a nationally recognized Registered Dietitian and award-winning author of “ Nutrition at your Fingertips,” “Feed Your Family Right,” and “So What Can I Eat.” She is also a past national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association. For more information, go to www.elisazied.com
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