My twitter feed is full of comments like the one below, mostly from Indians who’ve lived off coconut oil all their life.
My great grandmother is a hundred years old. She's had food cooked with coconut oil her entire life. This "pure poison" is arguably the most impotent poison to have ever existed.— Alistair Pinto (@ally_trevor) August 23, 2018
In a recent viral video, with over 900,000 views, a Harvard professor called coconut oil ‘pure poison.’ The video has generated a spate of response. Mostly of bafflement from Indians and Asians who use coconut oil for pretty much everything. From cooking, to hair care, to even for Alzheimer’s.
It comes on the heels of the American Heart Association asking people to avoid coconut oil. It also comes at a time when a form of coconut oil, the virgin coconut oil has been declared a ‘superfood’ and is being sold in speciality stores across the world.
I decided to investigate.
"India is the 3rd largest producer of coconuts, with the annual production at 2,044 crore from 19.8 lakh hectare area. Kerala contributes nearly 40 percent, according to research Nester. "Is Coconut Oil Really ‘Poison’?
Where does the concern come from? It is the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil that makes it the enemy of the heart, according to American Heart Association. Saturated fatty acids have been linked to high cholesterol and heart disease. According to American dietary guidelines, saturated fat intake should be less than 10 percent of daily calorie intake, or 20 g in a 2000 calorie diet.
According to the professor, coconut oil is worse than lard because it exclusively contains certain saturated fatty acids that can clog the arteries. In comparison, olive oil largely contains unsaturated fatty acids that makes it a more healthy option.
But then, are saturated fatty acids really that harmful? Dr Delnaaz T Chanduwadia, Chief Dietician at Jaslok Hospital in Mumbai says it’s the diet that is the culprit.
"Look, a lot of western diet is made up of food high in saturated fatty acids. Butter, lard, cheese, and other dairy products, coupled with a lot of junk food and animal fat means they far exceed the dietary requirement for saturated fats. For them, more of it can cause problems. "
Some research has questioned if saturated fat is really that bad. A big study published in the medical journal Lancet covering 135,000 people across 18 countries concluded that, in fact, higher saturated fat intake was associated with lower risk of stroke. Total fat and saturated and unsaturated fats were not significantly associated with risk of death due to cardiovascular disease.
Now this finding has been questioned by top cardiologists and the debate continues.
So what should you do? Moderation is key say most specialists.
"Excess of anything is bad. A tablespoon of coconut oil will make little difference so long as the rest of your diet is healthy. In fact, a spoon of virgin coconut oil offers a range of benefits. " - Dr Chanduwadia
Coconut oil is used excessively in south India, both in cooking and for the various health benefits it offers. This brings us to our next question.
Refined Versus Virgin Coconut Oil
What is normally used for cooking in households is refined coconut oil. Refinement process of any oil (bleaching and deodrizing), while making it more clear and removing impurities, also strips it of a lot of nutrients found in the unrefined or farm oil. Nutrients like medium chain fatty acids and polyphenols. It is these nutrients that gives coconut oil its health benefits.
The unrefined, or virgin coconut oil is made by pressing coconut filling soon after it is picked. As a result it retains most of its healthy nutrients and compounds.
Polyphenol is linked to antioxidants and medium chain fatty acids are said to boost immunity and raise good HDL cholesterol.
Virgin Coconut Oil Benefits
Alzheimer’s patients are often advised to take a tablespoon of virgin coconut oil. The belief is that the nerve cells in the brain of people with Alzheimer's disease are unable to use glucose to produce energy properly. Coconut oil provides alternate energy source.
But there is just not enough evidence to back this claim and no major scientific study has found conclusive results.
A lot of patients with fatty liver and other chronic liver issues are advised to take virgin coconut oil. Once damaged, liver is unable to digest fat, which is needed for the body to produce energy.
"The medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil are good for those with fatty liver problems. Besides these fatty acids get transported directly to the liver to be used as energy. It prevents cholesterol clogging the liver." - Kavita Devgan, Nutritionist
Similarly, MCT ketogenic diet, of which virgin coconut oil is a big part, has been used to treat epilepsy specially in children for a long time. The high fat, low carb therapy alters the way energy is burnt in the body, using fat in place of carbs at the body’s main fuel.
According to research published in the journal Brain, Decanoic acid, one of the three fatty acids in the MCT diet, directly affects receptors in the brain and decreases seizure activity.
Skin and Hair Care
According to Dr Chanduwadia, chief dietician at Jaslok Hospital, anti bacterial and anti fungal qualities of coconut oil are said to help aid itchy, dry skin. Similarly, fatty acids found in coconut oil are said to nourish the scalp and reduces hair breakage.
According to lifestyle medicine expert Luke Coutinho, the Medium Chain Triglycerides in coconut oil help fight fatigue and enhance absorption of vital nutrients. He advises use of wet milled or gentle cold press oil for therapeutic effect – one tbsp in morning and one in the evening.
At the same time, coconut oil is calorie dense - one table spoon may have as many as 120 calories. Keep in mind that coconut oil in moderation is at the very least not harmful, and may even prove beneficial, so long as the rest of your diet is balanced.
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