Moringa. Tiger nuts. Blue green algae. Do you scan the health news for the latest superfood? If you’re like me, some products make a brief kitchen appearance, but only a few linger. A quick forage in the back of my fridge reveals half-consumed bags of chia seed, quinoa, and goji berries. Most of these superfoods enjoy their 15 minutes of fame and then – yep – to the back. However, one product that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere is coconut oil, at least judging by how many brands you can find on grocery store shelves.
But is it really that good for you?
To answer this question, it helps to understand something about fats and cholesterol. And, lucky you, I devised a quiz. Don’t run away. Let’s give this a try.
How much cholesterol is in a coconut?
This is one of my favorite trick questions (another being how much is in an avocado). It might surprise you to learn the answer is zero. There’s plenty of fat but not a drop of cholesterol. Fat is different from cholesterol. Think of fat as those blubbery little oil globules which, after being assembled into groups, camp out on your waist or hips. Fats are found in both animals and plants. But only animals make cholesterol. It’s worth repeating. Animals make it. Plants don’t. Is there cholesterol in beef tenderloin? Yep. Chicken? Yep. Bacon? Yep. Fish? Yep, yep, yep. How much cholesterol in an avocado? You got it: zero.
So, if a coconut has zero cholesterol, how is it that eating one can increase your cholesterol? Or, for that matter, how can a vegan, who eats zero cholesterol, have high blood cholesterol?
The easy answer is that our livers – even a vegan’s – can make too much cholesterol. Here’s how it can happen: Fats don’t dissolve in water. You know that, because when you mix oil and water, it separates. Blood is essentially water colored by its main occupant, the red blood cell. If you pour oil into water, it floats. If you poured oil into blood it would float there, too. So, when you eat something fatty, like a coconut or an avocado, those little fat globules need to be packaged up before they can be “mixed” and transported through the bloodstream. Cholesterol, as it turns out is like an emulsifier – one end likes water and the other end likes fat. So, the fat-liking (lipophilic) end binds to the fat globule and the water-liking (hydrophilic) end faces the water. So, every time you eat fat, even plant fat, your liver produces cholesterol packages which surround and coat the fat so it can be transported through the bloodstream. From a design perspective, it’s an ingenious process whereby environmental fats can be ingested and delivered for use as an energy source. Go, liver. If we didn’t have cholesterol to package and transport fat molecules, they would all glob into one big oil slick and sludge your pipes to a standstill. If you don’t believe me just keep pouring that tuna fish oil down the drain and see how long before you have to call the plumber. But now the after effect – once the fat globules are delivered to various organs, it leaves a lot of useless cholesterol packaging in the circulation – enough to clog up some arteries if you’re not careful.
But back to coconut oil: You’ve probably heard there are good and bad fats. Coconut oil, made by pressing the nut’s white meat, is almost 90% saturated fat. That’s bad. Saturated fat raises levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. However, there are “less bad” types of saturated fat, one being lauric acid, which also happens to raise good cholesterol (HDL). Half the saturated fat of coconut oil is lauric acid – this is more than in other types of oils. So, as regards the coconut, there are some good and some bad properties. The trouble is, we just don’t know whether the good rise in HDL outweighs the bad rise in LDL.
Unfortunately, at this point, most studies looking at coconut oil’s health effects have been small and sometimes with conflicting results. The thing is this – everything in nature is a mix of good and bad. For science to understand something, it reduces it into components. So, just as doctors understand bodies by reducing them to hearts and livers and brains (with a pricey specialist for each), so food scientists break coconut oil into its components. It’s worth remembering, however, that plant-based oils contain lots of other things (antioxidants, vitamins, trace elements, etc.) so their overall health effects can’t be summed up by what they do to your good or bad cholesterol, or for that matter, what they do to your waistline (2 tbsp coconut oil = 240 calories = for me, 45 long minutes on the treadmill).
So, whether coconut oil is good for you really depends on context. If your name is Gilligan and your survival depends on calories to keep you alive until a ship passes, then definitely find a coconut. But if you live in 21st century Bermuda where heart disease is rampant, you might want to bypass (no pun intended) the solid “oils” loaded with saturated fat (coconut oil, like pork lard, is solid). Is coconut oil better than pork lard? Certainly. Better than olive oil (14% saturated fat)? I don’t think so. I don’t consider coconut oil particularly heart-healthy. It’s HDL-boosting property doesn’t really make it a good oil, it makes it a less-bad form of saturated fat. As your mother said a million times, eat a well-balanced diet. As your doctor has undoubtedly added, make that primarily plant-based with lots of colorful vegetables, nuts, lentils and beans. And may I add that you should eat locally as much as possible, meaning buy Bermuda-grown or, better still, grow it yourself?
All this may prove a rather unsatisfying conclusion for a public hungry for the next superfood. But, when you hear that coconut oil makes you lose weight, protects against hair damage, functions as a sunscreen, reduces bad breath, treats Alzheimer’s disease, decreases your appetite, and prevents seizures, take it all with a grain of salt. Unless of course you have high blood pressure, then take it with a grain of potassium. That is, unless you’re taking a potassium-sparing diuretic, then skip the potassium. Oh, I give up. What’s for dinner?
Look up and you’ll find a free source of saturated fat.
Some final thoughts on coconuts…
There are some things, other than chemical composition, that are strangely fascinating about coconuts. For instance, regardless of its effects on cholesterol, coconuts can kill you in other ways. I almost lost my life (or at least it felt that way) during hurricane Fabian when a giant nut smashed into an upstairs window, sending glass shards my way and 12 pounds of aluminum shutters into the neighbor’s yard (Sorry, Dianne). And if you think it’s dangerous here, try living in Papa New Guinea where, even on the balmiest day, 2.5% of hospital trauma admissions are for head injuries from falling coconuts. Probably the least risky thing you can do with a coconut is eat it, once in a while.
Here’s my favorite coconut recipe, using not the oil, but the milk. It’s a Thai dish, but five of the ingredients you can get yourself, locally.
1. Catch a wahoo.
2. Pick some basil and an eggplant.
3. Persuade your gardener to shimmy up the palm, grab a coconut, and machete it in two. Grate the coconut meat, boil it up, and make coconut milk (Google it).
4. Call your brother-in-law to see if his limes are ready.
5. Buy some green curry paste, jasmine rice, and low sodium fish sauce. Fry the curry paste, add ½ cup coconut milk, simmer until everything’s green. Add cubed wahoo, and fry until fish separates. Add more coconut milk, stir in a dab of fish sauce, diced eggplant, and lastly basil leaves. Pour over rice and squeeze on lime juice. Sounds terrible. Tastes really good. Oh, yes – you might want to skip your evening laxative. Nothing bland about this dish.
For more news on the latest developments in cardiology, visit www.ShaneMarshallMD.com, subscribe to the free newsletter The Annals of Cardiology, and follow Dr. Marshall on Twitter @ShaneMarshallMD.