Fats are one of the most misunderstood topics in nutrition and my loyal newsletter subscribers may have noticed something about the recipes I post.
I use coconut oil. A lot.
I also use ghee or butter.
I sometimes use olive oil.
I never use vegetable oils like soy, canola, or corn.
I was recently interviewed for an article on coconut oil by a fellow real food dietitian, Aglaée Jacob, for the magazine Today’s Dietitian. I thought you might like to hear some of the highlights and understand why I love coconut oil and why you should, too.
Many people question the use of coconut oil because it is high in saturated fat. The assumption is that saturated fat is bad for you and should be reduced or eliminated in your diet.
Turns out that reducing saturated fat hasn’t panned out the way researchers from 50 years ago thought. Americans followed the advice. Nowadays we eat less saturated fat, more unsaturated fat, more carbohydrate (and in case you’re wondering, roughly the same amount of protein), and we’re sicker and fatter than ever.
The claim that saturated fat is bad for you is meritless, yet has unfortunately been perpetuated since the 1950’s, even through my formal training as a registered dietitian and nutritionist.
A major review article on saturated fat published this year concluded:
Saturated fats are benign with regard to inflammatory effects… The influence of dietary fats on serum cholesterol has been overstated, and a physiological mechanism for saturated fats causing heart disease is still missing. – Lawrence G. Adv. Nutr. 2013.
That’s not the information you’ll read when you pick up any health-related magazine or follow a “lighter” recipe. It’s still all about lean meat, low-fat dairy, and reduced-fat versions of tasty classics. They tell you to use vegetable oil because it’s “healthier” for you – because it’s lower in saturated fat. But I disagree.
Why Cooking with Vegetable Oil is not Healthy
What they don’t tell you is that cooking with unsaturated fats, the kind found in vegetable oils, damages them and creates free radicals. Free radicals are essentially the opposite of antioxidants. That’s bad. They lead to inflammation in the body that’s linked to the very heart disease and diabetes you were trying to avoid by using them.
Cooking with saturated fats, on the other hand, does not damage them. They actually stay pretty much unharmed due to their stable chemical structure. That’s why generations of chefs love the stuff; they don’t go rancid or develop off-flavors and they have a high smoke point. And, that’s why I prefer to cook with saturated fats, coconut oil being a personal favorite.
Now for the science buffs out there, I’m purposefully simplifying this. There are different types of unsaturated fats. Some unsaturated fats have critical roles in our bodies and in their undamaged, unheated forms are healthy (omega-3 fats are just one example, monounsaturated fats from foods like olive oil and avocado are another).
The important point is that processed vegetable oils sold in clear plastic jugs are not part of this group and because they are so fragile, they are often rancid by the time of purchase (exposure to light is enough to oxidize unsaturated fats, which is why high quality oils are often sold in dark bottles).
Some Cool Facts About Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has a particular type of saturated fat called “medium chain triglycerides” (MCTs), which are easily digested and readily burned for energy, much like simple carbohydrates give you an energy boost, but without the spike in blood sugar. This makes coconut oil particularly helpful for people who have trouble digesting fats, athletes, and those with low energy levels.
A nice bonus of MCTs in coconut oil is the effect on metabolism, specifically their ability to promote weight loss. In studies where people use coconut oil in place of other cooking oils, weight loss is greater in those using coconut oil.
One of the MCTs in coconut oil called lauric acid has other beneficial effects, namely antimicrobial and antifungal properties that help maintain normal gut flora and immune function. Maybe that’s why human breastmilk is the only other significant source of lauric acid that we know of.
When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Coconut palms grow in tropical regions with high humidity and temperatures that promote growth of fungi, molds, bacteria, and viruses. In order to protect itself from these pathogens, coconuts naturally produce compounds to ward them off.
How to Use Coconut Oil?
Traditionally used in Thailand and India, coconut oil adds great flavor to stir fry recipes and curries. I use coconut oil in place of other cooking oils for most recipes that call for sauteing, frying, or roasting.
When baking recipes list vegetable oil, I replace it with an equal quantity of coconut oil. Note that coconut oil is naturally solid at room temperature, so if your house is cool, you might have to scoop it out with a spoon and melt it before use. Because if this, coconut oil doesn’t make the best salad dressing oil. I still prefer extra virgin olive oil as a base for salads dressings.
Coconut oil can also be used to replace butter, although I see no reason to do that if you can find a good quality butter from grassfed cows. (I’m a big fan of good butter.)
Finally, coconut oil can be used externally as a lotion. If you’re using a nice extra-virgin coconut oil, it will have a lovely coconut scent and for those of us with sensitive skin, it’s extremely gentle.
Now I’d like to hear from you!
Do you like coconut oil? If so, how do you use it?
If you have friends or family that are still cooking with vegetable oils because they think it’s healthy, forward this article to them!
You never know how much a small tip like this can change a life.
Happy cooking with coconut oil!
Until next week,
PS – If you want to read the full coconut article I was quoted in, check it out here. I’ll warn you ahead of time, it’s written for nutrition professionals, so it gets a little technical. Enjoy!