If you are Vegan or have ever researched being so, you will know well the breadth and depth of influence Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina have had on nutrition, health, and Veganism. I am honored to share a section of their brand new book, Becoming Vegan Express Edition. This guest post is on a topic many people ask about often…and this is a detailed, evidence-based response to the question about whether coconut oil is healthful or harmful….
*See below for details on how to win a FREE copy of this brand new book…
Few foods have been at once as maligned and acclaimed as coconut oil. Because it’s the most concentrated source of saturated fat in the food supply—even higher than lard or butter—some view it as a notorious health villain. Not surprisingly, it rests atop the “avoid” column of mainstream healthy-heart-food lists.
Others view coconut oil as a fountain of youth and the greatest health discovery in decades. These advocates claim that coconut oil can provide therapeutic benefits for Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, cancer, diabetes, digestive disturbances, heart disease, high blood pressure, HIV, kidney disease, osteoporosis, overweight, Parkinson’s disease, and many other serious conditions. So what’s the truth?
Based on the available science, coconut oil is neither a menace nor a miracle food. Coconut oil should be regarded like any other oil: a concentrated food that provides a lot of calories with limited nutrients. It’s okay to use some high-quality coconut oil when preparing special-occasion treats, but as with other oils, its use should be minimized. On the other hand, whole coconut should be treated in much the same way as other high-fat plant foods—enjoyed primarily as a whole food. As such, it’s loaded with fiber, vitamin E, and healthful phytochemicals, and has powerful antimicrobial properties.
The relative health effects of coconut oil consumption remain somewhat uncertain. Some people believe that eating coconut oil does no harm because it’s cholesterol-free; others claim it’s harmful because it lacks essential fatty acids. But we can’t ignore the fact that in many parts of the world where coconut and coconut oil are the principal sources of dietary fat, the rates of chronic disease, including CAD, are low. There is one major caveat: the benefits seem to apply only when coconut products are consumed as part of a diet rich in high-fiber plant foods and lacking processed foods.
The people of the Marshall Islands provide a poignant example. The traditional Marshallese diet employed a wide variety of coconut products, which furnished an estimated 50 to 60 percent of total calories. Seventy years ago, when this diet was standard fare, diabetes was pretty much unheard of. When their indigenous diet gave way to a Western-style diet of processed foods and fatty animal products, diabetes rates escalated even though coconut products continued to be featured prominently in the diet.
Coconut oil is so often blacklisted by health-care providers mainly because approximately 87 percent of its fat is saturated. Many people imagine saturated fat as a single tyrant that clogs arteries, but different types of saturated fats exist. They contain fatty acid chains whose lengths contain from 4 to 30 carbon atoms. Depending on the length of the carbon chain, these fatty acids have very different effects on blood cholesterol levels and on health.
The most common saturated fatty acids are lauric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid, and stearic acid. Their carbon-chain length and main food sources are:
- lauric acid (12 carbon atoms): coconut, coconut oil, palm kernel oil
- myristic acid (14 carbon atoms): dairy products, coconut, palm oil, palm kernel oil, nutmeg oil
- palmitic acid (16 carbon atoms): palm oil, animal fats
- stearic acid (18 carbon atoms): cocoa butter, mutton fat, beef fat, lard, butter
Saturated fatty acids with 12 to 16 carbon atoms increase LDL cholesterol levels, while 18-carbon stearic acid doesn’t. However, stearic acid isn’t completely off the hook; some evidence shows high intakes could adversely affect other CVD risk factors, such as lipoprotein(a) and certain clotting factors.
As it happens, approximately three-quarters of the fat in coconut oil comprises saturated fatty acids known to raise blood cholesterol levels: 15 percent is saturated fatty acids with small carbon chains (6 to 10 carbon atoms), 47 percent is lauric acid, 18 percent is myristic acid, 9 percent is palmitic acid, and 3 percent is stearic acid. Case closed?
Well, not exactly. The predominant fatty acid, lauric acid, does raise total cholesterol, but it appears to raise HDL cholesterol to an even greater extent than LDL cholesterol, favorably altering the ratio of HDL to total cholesterol. In addition, lauric acid is converted in the body into monolaurin, a powerful antiviral, antifungal, and antiseptic compound—and coconut oil is among the richest food sources of lauric acid. There’s also evidence that coconut products have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity. However, the compounds responsible (which include a variety of phytochemicals, such as phenolic acids) are largely eliminated when coconut oil is refined.
Brenda Davis is a leader in her field, an esteemed speaker, a member of the Vegetarian Hall of Fame, and a past chairperson of the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly the American Dietetic Association). She lives in Kelowna, British Columbia, with her husband, Paul.
Vesanto Melina is a sought-after speaker and consultant; she has taught nutrition at the University of British Columbia and Bastyr University in Seattle and is consultant to the government of B. C. She coauthored the joint position paper on vegetarian diets for the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada. She lives in Langley, BC with her partner Cam Doré.
They are the coauthors of 13 books, 6 jointly.
These books include their popular Becoming Raw, The New Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegetarian, Becoming Vegan, and The Raw Food Revolution Diet. Brenda also is co-author of Defeating Diabetes and of Dairy-Free and Delicious. Vesanto is co-author of Cooking Vegan, Cooking Vegetarian, Raising Vegetarian Children, Food Allergies: Health and Healing, and the Food Allergy Survival Guide. Their books have been translated into 9 languages and have sold over 650,000 copies.
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