Nuts Over Coconut: Is It Really Heart Healthy?

Am I the only one who feels bombarded by coconut lately? It seems that coconut has replaced kale in the past year as a foodie favorite. People are eating it as coconut oil, drinking it as coconut milk or coconut water, and even wearing it…to moisturize hair and skin. I can’t escape it as coconut posts flood Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook friends’ recipes.

Coconut4I’ve resisted adding coconut to my daily diet. Not that I don’t love it—coconut cream is my favorite chocolate filling and I adore Almond Joys as well as coconut cakes, but I wonder about its saturated fat content. I know that loyals say it’s a different type of saturated fat that lowers blood cholesterol, promotes weight loss by increasing metabolism and burning fat, and boosts immunity. Well, all of this sounds too good to be true for such a high calorie food, so I researched coconut oil from biochemistry websites and here’s what I found:

  • The type of fat in coconut oil is 86% saturated (even higher for the less processed virgin coconut oil), with the rest being unsaturated; compare that with butter which is 63% saturated fat.
  • The saturated fat in coconut oil is composed of 4 different types of fatty acids: lauric, myristic, palmitic and stearic acid. Lauric acid is the most prevalent fatty acid in coconut oil (47%), which has been shown to raise total blood cholesterol but more notably it raises “good” HDL cholesterol (which helps carry fat away from cells and arteries). This is why proponents say it’s heart healthy, but personally I don’t classify any food that raises your total cholesterol as making your heart healthier. Furthermore, coconut oil also contains myristic and palmitic acids in smaller amounts that raise “bad” LDL cholesterol. Small amounts of coconut oil are likely fine for the heart because of this negating effect of good/bad cholesterol ratio, and small amounts won’t cause weight gain (keep in mind that all fats have the same amount of calories at about 130 per tablespoon). But if you’re drinking coconut milk by the glassful, using coconut oil as your main fat in cooking, and smearing coconut oil on toast every day, you may eat too many of those “bad” fatty acids that raise your blood cholesterol and calories that inflate your waistline!
  • Lauric acid, the main type of fatty acid in coconut oil, is a medium chain triglyceride (MCT). MCTs are more quickly digested and better absorbed by the body, so they’re a useful source of calories for people who have problems digesting fat (Celiac disease, gallbladder disease, stomach or intestinal surgery, severe diarrhea). MCTs are also being researched to help treat Alzheimer’s disease and seizures as part of a ketogenic diet. But it’s not clear that MCTs are more beneficial for the average healthy person than other types of recommended fats like olive oil or flaxseed oil.

With all that said, I’m a plant food promoter and believe that pure coconut can be part of a healthful plant-based diet. Look for virgin coconut oil, which retains more of its natural vitamin, mineral and antioxidant content than regular coconut oil. If you’re eating a plant-rich diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, I’d suggest allowing 2-3 tablespoons of full fat oil daily, whether from olive, canola, flaxseed, virgin coconut oil or other plant oil. Coconut oil is great to cook with as it has a high smoke point that resists burning at high temperatures, and offers a unique enjoyable flavor. Coconut butter is pureed coconut meat so it has slightly more fiber than the oil alone.

Below is a simple recipe contributed by my niece Alexa:

Alexa’s Coconut Butter

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Ingredients

8 cups unsweetened coconut

Pinch of salt

Pinch of sugar

Directions
Fill your blender with half of the coconut, salt and sugar. Blend until “snow” like. Add, in increments, the remaining coconut and keep blending. You may need to turn the blender off and scrape the sides a few times. As it continues to blend, the natural oils will come out of the coconut, creating a smooth and creamy consistency. It reminds me of the coconut flavor in an Almond Joy! Store at room temperature (it is safe and will not spoil) or in the refrigerator.

NOTES

  • This is a great alternative to butter and can be used as a spread on toast or to stir-fry either sweet or savory dishes.
  • I used a Blendtec blender, which is stronger than a food processor so the consistency came out creamy. If you use a regular blender or food processor, the texture may be slightly chunkier.
  • Storing at room temp will keep it from hardening. If you choose to store it in the fridge, you may microwave it for 10-20 seconds to soften it.

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