July 24, 2018

Fads and fats: The truth about coconut oil

Coconut oil has become a very popular fat that has been widely promoted as a superfood with many health benefits. But is this fact or fiction?

“In our day and age, food trends can spread quickly because of social media," UW Health dietitian Susan Portz said, "but as a dietitian, I always ask, 'What does the science tell us, what’s the evidence?' "

Portz says that while coconut oil has been coined by social media as a health food item, the science tells a different story.

While a few small studies show some possible health benefits for coconut oil, Portz said there’s not enough evidence to support many of the claims around coconut oil, and the reality is that coconut oil is still a predominately a saturated fat - with even more saturated fat than butter.

Long-term research studies have shown that a diet high in saturated and trans fats can significantly raise your LDL cholesterol, and that’s not good for your heart.

Also nicknamed your “lousy” cholesterol, LDL is “sticky” and if you have too much of it in your blood stream, LDL can cause blockages in your arteries and heart. Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, can help lower your LDL, and can decrease your risk of heart disease.

Putting popular food trends aside, what recommendations for a healthy diet have stood the test of time? Portz says you can never go wrong with eating fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes and lean proteins such as turkey, chicken, fish and tofu. Being mindful of portion size using the new "healthy plate" guidelines is also helpful – a 9-inch plate should be filled with half veggies, one-quarter protein and one-quarter carbohydrate.

And what about fats?

"We need to eat fat to be healthy. It plays an important role in vitamin and mineral absorption and metabolism. Fat also helps us feel full and boosts the flavor of food," said Portz. “The problem is that with our American diet, we tend to eat a lot more of the saturated and trans fats. We are fast paced society and we want quick and easy things so we eat a lot of processed foods."

Nutritional guidelines recommend that 30 to 35 percent of our total calories come from fat, with the majority coming from unsaturated fats – things like olive oil, canola oil, nuts, avocados, seeds and fish.

About saturated fats, Portz said, “It’s not that we can’t eat it, we just need to be careful how much we eat of it."

Portz added that we should be wary of low fat products which usually have added sugar and salt to replace the flavor and stick to whole, minimally processed foods as much as possible.

“The thing about food trends is that we tend to go in cycles," she said. "Right now, it’s low carb, and years ago we were also in a low-carb, high-protein phase. While research around nutrition is always changing, there are good basics that have stood the test of time.”

While following a diet trend might be healthy for some, they aren’t always healthy for everyone, and Portz said working with a dietitian to determine how to best meet your nutrition and health needs.

To schedule a consultation with a UW Health dietitian, call (608) 890-5500. Insurance coverage varies, so please check with your individual plan.