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Secret ingredient: 'Medium-chain' fatty acids

Click here to return to the Medical News Today home page. Fat suffered a bad reputation for a long time and we were told to opt for low-fat options instead. But the tides turned eventually, prompting us to see fats in a new light.

Coconut oil boom

Our lives became simpler. We learned how to avoid bad saturated and hydrogenated fats and eat good unsaturated ones to keep our tickers and arteries healthy. Then the humble coconut came along in , and the waters were once again muddied. Seen by some as a superfood but recently labeled by the American Heart Association AHA as part of the pool of unhealthful fats, the controversy goes on.

So, what are the scientific facts behind the coconut oil hype, and what are the latest developments?


Many of the purported health claims surrounding coconut oil stem from research published in by Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph. St-Onge found that in overweight women, consumption of medium-chain fatty acids — such as those found in coconut oil — led to an increase in energy expenditure and fat oxidation compared with women who ate long-chain or saturated fatty acids. But Prof. St-Onge used a specially formulated fat diet in her study, not coconut oil, and she never claimed that coconut oil was the secret to the results seen in her research.

In fact, a study involving 40 women showed that 30 milliliters of coconut oil — consumed daily for a week period — increased good high-density lipoprotein HDL levels, accompanied by a reduction in waist circumference. Despite the number of studies casting coconut oil in a favorable light, the AHA issued an advisory note on dietary fats and cardiovascular disease in June , recommending that we replace saturated fats with more healthful unsaturated fats.

This includes coconut oil.

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The reason? Saturated fat is bad for our cardiovascular health. However, there is another twist to this fascinating tale.

Coconut claims debunked

While low-density lipoprotein LDL is generally thought of as "bad" cholesterol , the HDL type is widely accepted as being its "healthful" counterpart. Yet in , we covered three studies that potentially turn what we know about fats and cholesterol on its head.

The first strudy found that saturated fats may not "clog" our arteries after all, while the second one uncovered a link between "good" HDL and mortality. The third study , published in November , showed that high levels of HDL may not protect us from heart disease , as previously thought. One of the problems with the controversy surrounding coconut oil is the lack of good-quality, large-scale human studies.

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Together with Dr. Kay-Tee Khaw, a professor of clinical gerontology, and Dr. Nita Gandhi Forouhi, a professor of population health and nutrition — both at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom — the team compared the effects of coconut oil, olive oil, and butter in 94 human volunteers.

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  • Each study participant was asked to consume 50 grams of one of these fats daily for 4 weeks. The results came as a surprise. Those who consumed coconut oil saw a 15 percent increase in HDL levels, while this number only stood at 5 percent for olive oil, which is accepted as being good for our cardiovascular system. At high levels, cocoa flavanols have been shown to help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, improve cognition and possibly lower the risk of diabetes.

    But limit your portions to about 1 ounce a day. Hide Caption. When it comes to fat and calories, some cheeses are lighter than others. Experts recommend using it as a flavor enhancer rather than as the focus of a meal.

    The facts on coconut oil – is it the best choice?

    Granola contains healthy ingredients such as oats, nuts and dried fruit, and it can serve as a tasty topping to yogurt or cereal. But since it can pack up to calories per cup thanks to sugar and other ingredient treats , it's important to sprinkle, not pour. Ready-to-eat breakfast cereal can make for a convenient and healthy breakfast, especially if it's made with whole grains, is low in sugar and is served with fresh fruit and low-fat milk. But sugary cereals that lack fiber and protein can cause a blood sugar spike and crash before lunchtime.

    Order a California roll, and you'll get heart-healthy monounsaturated fats from avocado and zinc from crab, all for calories.

    Surprising New Uses for Coconut Oil

    But a crunchy shrimp tempura roll, which is battered and fried and often drizzled with spicy mayo, has about more calories and three times the amount of fat. Air-popped popcorn is a healthy, whole-grain, antioxidant-rich snack that's low in calories. But movie theater popcorn, which is popped in coconut oil, is a diet disaster, contributing 1, calories and about three days worth of saturated fat for a medium bucket -- and that's without the buttery topping. A Greek yogurt with no added sugar makes for a filling protein- and calcium-rich snack.

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    • But sweetened yogurts with flavorings or fruit purees have less protein and are more like dessert, with up to 8 teaspoons of sugar. Energy bars can be a wise choice for a snack or mini meal if they offer a healthy dose of protein and fiber, and are low in sugars and saturated fat. But when they contain chocolate coatings or sugary syrups, they can pass for protein-fortified candy bars. A salad made with spinach, light tuna, veggies, feta and yogurt dressing can make for a low-calorie, nutrient-rich lunch. But when your salad contains crispy chicken, bacon, cheddar and ranch dressing, you'd be better off eating a burger.

      If you are vegetarian, peanut butter can be a convenient way to add protein and heart-healthy fats to your diet. Just steer clear of flavored peanut butters with sugar and cocoa butter, which can quickly turn your passion for peanut butter into consumption of calorie-rich chocolate. Story highlights Coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, often used to predict cardiovascular disease risk But coconut oil also raises HDL, the "good" cholesterol.

      Compared to a tablespoon of olive oil, a tablespoon of coconut oil contains about six times the amount of saturated fat, nearly meeting the daily limit of about 13 grams that the American Heart Association recommends. Furthermore, olive oil, a main component of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet , contains beneficial polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

      Earlier this year, the organization issued an advisory that firmly reiterated its guidance to consumers to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats to help prevent heart disease. Consumers were also urged to keep in mind the bigger picture of an overall healthy eating pattern.

      Coconut oil: The facts behind 'pure poison' claim - CNN

      Yet, coconut oil may be a better choice than some other sources of saturated fat. Proponents of coconut oil point out that it is rich in phytochemicals that have healthful antioxidant properties. Qi Sun, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. As a general rule, though, cooking with olive oil is the better choice for overall health.