Ask a dietitian: What’s with all the hype over coconut oil?

I really am stumped by how coconut oil gained so much momentum in our food and diet world so incredibly fast. It seems like a plethora of articles, books and Instagram photos touting the many benefits of this magic oil popped up almost overnight but how do you tell fact from fad?

Let’s break down the science of coconut oil so that you can determine if it’s worth it to include in your diet or if the marketers are just doing an incredible job at pocketing your money.

Where does coconut oil actually come from? Well, you might want to think twice before throwing out that coconut “cup” after your Pina Colada as the coconut flesh itself is packed full of nutrients. It’s dense with protein, carbohydrate, fibre, but, predominantly, what is extracted from this flesh is fat or oil. So the question becomes is eating coconut oil actually healthy?

Related: 7 things coconut oil can do for you

To answer that you need to know that there are two types of natural fats — saturated and unsaturated (three if you include trans fats but that is man-made and you’re best off without it).

Saturated fats have been linked to elevated LDL cholesterol levels — a bad cholesterol that should be minimized for those with heart disease. That said, saturated fats do have some health benefits when eaten in small amounts, but I’ll reiterate – small amounts. It’s primarily found in animal sources (think red meat, the skin of poultry and processed meats), dairy products (think butter, high fat cream, ghee, and regular-fat milk and cheese), lard, baked goods and some plant sources (enter coconut oil). 

Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat, so why are we going bonkers to get coconut oil off the store shelves and into our stir frys?  

Well, the main type of saturated fat found within coconut oil is lauric acid, which tends to mimic the action of healthy unsaturated fats (increasing HDL or good cholesterol levels).  But don’t go swapping out your olive oil for the stuff just yet!

Unlike other vegetable oils higher in unsaturated fats like olive oil, grapeseed oil and canola oil, coconut oil has very few antioxidants and vitamins that naturally come along with other plant-based oils.

Moreover, in the few short-term studies (most with only small sample sizes) that looked at coconut oil, the results showed an increase to the sample’s good cholesterol (HDL), but also the bad stuff (LDL cholesterol).

That said, coconut oil has a distinct flavour and if you enjoy it by all means use small amounts in your cooking. As for whether it’s a “health food” or a “super food,” it’s a far cry from it. It is a natural plant-based saturated fat that’s healthy in only small amounts and more long-term studies are truly needed before you switch your every day cooking oil for it.

Related: 29 Coconut Beauty Products to Make Summer Last Forever

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