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The Truth Behind Coconut Oil

According to a 2016 survey published in the New York Times, 72% of Americans think coconut oil is healthful. It has often been proclaimed as a superfood with benefits that range from promoting weight loss, reducing cardiovascular disease, treating diabetes, and reversing Alzheimer’s disease. However, there are others who say that coconut oil should be avoided based on its nature as a tropical saturated fat. What’s driving the recent popularity of coconut oil and what does science say about the potential benefits?
Most of the health benefits attributed to coconut oil are associated with its high content of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), a type of saturated fat. Saturated fats are generally solid at room temperature, such as butter and animal fats, and are associated with raising bad “LDL” cholesterol and putting people at higher risk for heart disease. MCFAs behave differently than the more commonly consumed long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs). They are more easily absorbed directly into the blood whereas long chain fats travel through the blood in carriers called chylomicrons, depositing fat into tissues. This difference is often cited as the reasoning behind the perception that coconut oil is more healthful than
other saturated fats.

Some people may be familiar with MCFAs as they make up medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, a popular supplement which claims to help users maintain a healthy weight, have better digestion, and increase energy. However, the most traditional (and scientifically proven) use of MCTs is as a fat source for the treatment of fat absorption disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, and pancreatitis.
Following are some previously mentioned claims about coconut oil and what research says about each.
Weight Loss
While high-quality human studies are lacking, replacing long-chain fats, such as butter and animal fats, with MCTs may be modestly helpful in weight loss. MCFA metabolism is inefficient and result in slightly greater energy expenditure compared to metabolism of LCFAs. However, the MCTs in coconut oil are not the same as those commonly studied in weight loss research and may not necessarily have the same effect. In addition, you would have to eat a massive amount of coconut oil to reap the benefits. The bottom line is that there is no solid evidence to recommend coconut oil as a weight loss aid at this time.
Cardiovascular Disease
The current recommendation for a heart healthy diet is to limit saturated fat intake. Coconut oil is 92% saturated fat, but has a lower melting point than most other saturated fats. Therefore, coconut oil’s role in a cardio protective diet is a controversial topic among researchers. Societies in which coconut products make up a part of the traditional diet have less observed cardiovascular disease. However, these diets are also typically high in heart healthy foods, like vegetables and fish, and low in processed foods. Epidemiological studies have found an association among consumption of coconut products and higher levels of protective “HDL” cholesterol. However, recent research has also found that coconut consumption may also raise LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol, and triglycerides – all of which are cardiovascular disease risk factors. Overall, there is no clear evidence that coconut oil is good for heart health. Better choices, which are supported by the current research, are mono- and polyunsaturated fatty acids, such as olive, canola, and other nut/seed oils.

While there is no current “proof” that coconut oil is a miracle food, it does have a place in a healthy diet. It is a great base which can be used to complement Thai or Indian dishes. That being said, it should not be used in excess. Stick to the recommended serving size of 1 Tbsp.

Crispy Tofu and Bok Choy Stir-Fry

From the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics

20 oz. microwaveable frozen brown rice
1 tablespoon coconut oil
14 ounces extra firm tofu, drained and pressed, cut into ½-inch cubes
8 cups bok choy chopped leaves and stems, rinsed (about 2 heads of bok choy, or 4 baby bok choy)
¼ cup tamari or light soy sauce
2 teaspoons agave nectar or maple syrup
1 teaspoon sriracha hot sauce, optional
Green onions, to garnish
1. Prepare brown rice according to package directions. Set aside.
2. In a large skillet, heat coconut oil over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add tofu cubes carefully. Cook for 2 minutes, then flip tofu to another side. You can remove the pan from heat while flipping tofu to avoid oil splatter. Cook tofu on at least 4 sides for crispy texture, cooking for 2 minutes on each side. Once cooked as desired, remove tofu from pan and set aside.
3. Using the same skillet, sauté bok choy over medium heat for 2 minutes. While bok choy is cooking, combine tamari, agave nectar and sriracha hot sauce (if using) in a small bowl.
4. Turn heat off and add sauce and cooked brown rice to skillet with bok choy and stir together. Add in tofu cubes and mix together briefly to maintain crispiness of tofu. Top with green onions and serve.
Cooking Note
 If not using coconut oil, canola or sesame oil may be used as substitutions.
 Chicken breast can be substituted for tofu
Nutrition Information
Serving size: 1 cup
Serves 4
Calories: 435; Total fat: 12g; Saturated fat: 4g; Cholesterol: 0mg; Sodium: 1,286mg; Carbohydrates: 66g;
Fiber: 8g; Sugars: 8g; Protein: 23g; Potassium: n/a; Phosphorus: n/a

1. http://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/1016p32.shtml
2. http://www.eatright.org/resource/food/planning-and- prep/recipes/crispy-tofu- and-bok- choy-stir-fry- recipe

By Jillian Klemm, Dietetic Internal