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What in the world is…the deal with coconut oil?


We’ve been told to cook with it, put it in our hair, use it to moisturize our skin, and maybe even pour it on our bank accounts—for years, coconut oil has been labeled as a saintly substance that would give us more energy, shrink our waistlines and make us feel like we were putting more good fats into our bodies than bad fats.

But is that true?

According to Dr. James Peters, the medical director and cofounder of the TakeTEN program at Adventist Health St. Helena, coconut oil is one of those tricky topics that inspires debate—and much of it revolves around the way we use (and misuse) coconut oil—not necessarily the oil itself.

The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fats in our diets, which are primarily found in butter, cheese, red meat and other animal-based foods. These fats can raise our LDL-cholesterol (also known as “bad” cholesterol) and put us at higher risk for heart disease. Dr. Peters says there’s a big difference between “good fats” and “bad fats,” saying that monounsaturated fats such as olives, avocados and almonds are part of a heart-healthy diet.

But what about the coconut?

“Coconut is a saturated fat, so for decades we’ve been advised to limit these fats in our diet,” says Dr. Peters. “There’s been a lot of controversy with the coconut!” He explains that coconut contains a type of fatty acid that shares components with “bad” fat foods such as meats and butter, however, it doesn’t have as high of a level of bad fat as its counterparts. “If you’re eating a standard diet (with meat products and cheeses) and add a lot of coconut oil, then yes, it is possible to raise your bad cholesterol levels, but if you were using butter, it would simply raise at an expedited rate.” So basically it’s like going from the right lane to the acceleration lane—all those roads can lead to heart disease.

Science has shown that a plant-based diet pattern can make you healthier, lighter and perhaps even live longer (seriously, have you heard about Blue Zones?!). What’s the secret? It’s all about refined foods.

In the TakeTEN program in St. Helena, California, Dr. James Peters and Dr. Cheryl Peters recommend a whole-plant diet, with refined plant foods and oils only making up 10 percent or less of the daily intake. Refined foods, Dr. Peters explains, are foods that have been highly processed and stripped of their original nutritional content and fiber. Refined oils are easy to overconsume versus their whole-food counterparts (it might take six ears of corn to make a teaspoon of corn oil, but when was the last time you tried to eat six ears of corn in one sitting?). 

The healthiest way to utilize plant fat is by consuming it in its original state. “We use the whole coconut flakes and puree in our recipes, but we use the refined coconut oil sparingly to replace butter for cookies or baked goods,” says Dr. Peters. “For our TakeTEN ‘cowboy cookies’, for instance, we use a very small amount of coconut oil to replace butter using only one-eighth to one quarter of a teaspoon per cookie, whereas a standard cookie would be made with butter at much higher amounts per cookie.” This makes a big difference when it comes to raising and lowering cholesterol.

If you’re going to use oils for cooking, Dr. Peters says you want to set your standards high: Only use the highest-quality, cold-pressed oils that you can get your hands on.

Another thing to consider when cooking with refined oils is the smoke point. “When oil is processed with high heat, it can cause oxidation. Oil that is smoked or burned can be dangerous,” says Dr. Peters. “If there’s smoke, you shouldn’t use that oil at all—that means it has free radicals. Be more careful to cook certain oils at a lower temperature.”

As for the coconut oil hype, Dr. Peters says he’s not contradicting the data out there, but the problem is that these news sources are isolating the oil itself as a single entity versus looking at the bigger picture of overall health. “The goal is to find harmony. One point that most agree on are the health benefits of switching from animal saturated fats to whole plant fats,” says Dr. Peters.

“Replacing butter and animal saturated fats in baking with small amounts of saturated plant fats is wise—but keep it to a minimum. Don’t overdo it. People tend to get lost in the weeds of this nutrient versus thatnutrient, but really they should be focusing on the whole pattern of their diet.” Moderation, education, and a balanced diet are the keys to a happy heart and waistline.

Want to know more about Dr. Peters and the TakeTEN Lifestyle Medicine program? Check them out here! If you want to learn more about heart health, check out the American Heart Association.


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