Cuckoo for Coconut: Counterfeit or Correct?

May 2, 2017

By Debbie Herbst, RD, LD, CDE
Mercy Hospital Carthage

Coconut oil will make you thin, give you a lovely complexion, make your heart healthy, improve your diabetes and prevent Alzheimer’s. Wow, sounds too good to be true, but is it? Let’s look at the science behind those claims and find out.

Coconut oil is a kind of fat that is between saturated fats and monounsaturated fats. What does that mean?

Saturated fats are digested, carried through the blood vessels and can lead to clogging. In turn, this can result in heart attacks and strokes.

Monounsaturated fats are broken down, or digested, differently and have much less clogging effect. Coconut oil contains 16 percent monounsaturated-type fat, while the rest acts more like saturated fat.

Let’s take a look at those claims:

Claim: Coconut oil helps you lose weight.

The science: Coconut oil is slightly lower in calories than other fats.

The bottom line: There are no reliable studies in humans about replacing other fats with coconut oil and losing weight. Weight loss has to do with eating patterns, eating fruits and vegetables, total calories eaten and exercise habits. Just taking coconut oil will not help you lose weight, unless you change other eating and exercise habits.

Claim: Coconut oil lowers risk of cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) disease.

The science: Some researchers believe that saturated fats are not causing heart disease; however, all major health groups, like the American Heart Association, continue to recommend limiting saturated fat to lower risk of heart disease and stroke. Saturated fats are solid at room temperature, so can make the cells in our body less fluid (more stiff).

Unsaturated fats, like olive oil or corn oil, are liquid at room temperature. In turn, they can help cells in blood vessels be more fluid or flexible. Some studies have shown that taking in more coconut foods help raise good (HDL) cholesterol, but at the same time may raise bad (LDL) cholesterol.

The bottom line: Research is strong in showing that using more unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, corn oil, peanut oil, pecans, walnuts, is the best choice for heart health.

Claim: Coconut oil can prevent and treat diabetes.

The science: In 1992, a study looked at the effect of coconut oil on insulin production in mice. There are no human studies that support this result. Diets high in saturated fats actually will lower insulin sensitivity and make diabetes harder to control. That means the body does not use insulin as effectively to lower blood sugars.

The bottom line: There is no evidence that coconut oil helps in the treatment of diabetes. The American Diabetes Association states coconut oil is a saturated fat to be limited.

Claim: Coconut can reverse Alzheimer’s disease.

The science: Some research has shown that diets resulting in ketones, which are byproducts of the breakdown of fats, can help treat certain neurological diseases. In Alzheimer’s, brain cells lose their ability to use sugar for fuel. The theory is that ketones offer a different fuel source for brain cells; however, little research has been done on humans and none with coconut oil.

The bottom line: The Alzheimer’s Association states there are a few reports of individuals being helped by taking coconut oil, but there has been no clinical testing, and there is no scientific evidence and no reliable medical reasons to take coconut oil for Alzheimer’s.

Coconut oil can add value to certain kinds of foods, such as Thai or Hawaiian dishes. When using any oil, do not heat to high temperatures. Above the smoke point, heat damages oils and breaks down fat. This forms free radicals, which can damage cells and lead to cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.

The final bottom line? Don’t believe the coconut claims that are not founded in truth. Enjoy coconut in moderation — just don’t go cuckoo over it!

Strawberry Spinach Salad

4 cups fresh baby spinach
3 cups sliced, fresh strawberries
1 can (11 ounces) mandarin oranges, drained
2 tablespoons canola or olive oil
2 tablespoon cider vinegar
½ cup light raspberry yogurt
¼ cup slivered almonds, toasted

1. In large bowl, combine spinach, strawberries and mandarin oranges. In small bowl, whisk together oil and vinegar. Whisk in yogurt.
2. Divide spinach mixture among 6 salad plates. Top each serving with dressing and almonds.
Nutrition facts: 1 serving = 130 calories, 7 grams fat, 31 mg sodium, 14 grams carbohydrate, 3 grams fiber. Counts as 1 carb choice.

Mercy clinical nutrition dietitians at Mercy Hospital Carthage on the McCune-Brooks Campus, 3125 Dr. Russell Smith Way, can be reached at 417-359-1359.