The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Coconut Oil: Is It Wonderful?...Or Is It NOT?

A lot of people believe coconut oil is very nutritious and that it can help dementia. But what about shredded coconut? That's something we use a lot this time of year to add flavor and fiber to many holiday foods. Well, it isn't exactly unhealthy, but it shouldn't be a regular part of your diet. It does supply some key vitamins and minerals. However, its high fat and sugar content greatly decreases its nutritional value. You can use  unsweetened shredded coconut to improve nutritional value but the fat content remains. See the discussion below about the fat in coconut oil and whether it is nutritious or not.   There is no evidence that it helps dementia.

Coconut oil. We know that coconut oil is nutritious in many ways although the jury is still out about whether it is helpful with dementia. Last year, the 10/14/13 blog was ambivalent. There's still very little supportive research although there are many glowing personal reports from a wide variety of sources. We do know that it is wonderful on the skin. But what about as nutrition?

Many people believe that coconut oil has attributes that make it heart-healthy, and that it may even be useful for treating infections. Others swear that it has a definite, positive effect on cognition. Some advocates believe that when transformed by the liver into ketones, it may even restore and renew neuron and nerve function in the brain after damage has set in. That is about as close to a cure as we’ve heard—if it works.

As for scientific proof of these claims, the strongest appears to be a 2012 study with results that showed that ingesting coconut oil provided significant short term benefits to dementia patients. From this, we can deduce that yes, coconut oil apparently does have a positive, if temporary effect. That is, like a drug that treats symptoms but doesn’t cure, it provides a benefit only as long as it is in the system.

So far there is no scientific proof that it can do anything permanent like renewing neurons. We should learn more in September, 2015, when the National Institute of Aging plans to publishes the results of their clinical trial to look at the benefits of coconut oil in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease.

However, the down side is that coconut oil is high in calories and is categorized as a saturated fat, the kind that isn’t heart healthy at all. Advocates say that the way coconut oil is metabolized makes the calories less important. They also say that the oil acts more like a carbohydrate than a saturated fat.

Nevertheless, until further research changes what we know, nutritionists remind us that while healthy fats should make up about 30% of your total intake, saturated fats (including coconut) should be limited to no more than 10%--or about two tablespoons a day. Advocates suggest that you can use it to replace butter on toast or popcorn, use it as shortening in cooking, or add it to smoothies.

Omega-3 fatty acid update: The 10/4/13 blog reported that foods containing omega-3 fatty acids have a positive effect on dementia but that the use of supplements is questionable. This remains true. There is more emphasis on getting enough fats in our diets—healthy fat, that is. Human brains are at least 60% healthy fats, which must continually be replenished for proper functioning. As with essential vitamins, our bodies cannot manufacture these nutrients; they must be obtained from diet. We have been so trained to watch our fat intake that we often neglect to ingest adequate amounts of the fats that our brains need.

A Dutch study found that a diet high in fat seems to postpone the aging of the brain. Olive, canola and possibly, coconut oil, fatty fish, flax and pumpkin seeds and walnuts are examples of foods containing healthy fats. You can find a longer list here. It would probably behoove all of us to add more of these to our diet. (Notice that coconut oil is included in the list of “bad fats” on this list. Again, it IS a saturated fat, but has other attributes that makes it healthier than other saturated fats, and perhaps we will eventually find that it is as healthy as “good fats.”

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