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Can One Rely On Coconut To Prevent Heart Disease?

People used to stay away from coconut products because they are unhealthy. Lately, coconut seems to return as a health food, and coconut-based products have become increasingly popular. Proponents of coconut claim that coconut contains healthy fats that are good for the heart, protect against illnesses like Alzheimer’s, arthritis and diabetes, and can even aid weight loss.

Supporters of coconut do have their reasons to back their claims. Being one of the few saturated fats that comes from a plant source, coconut oils is believed to be a good alternative to other oils as it has a slightly higher smoke point. This means that when it is heated, it produces fewer harmful free radicals (molecules linked to ageing and disease) and loses less of its nutrients.

In alternative medicines, coconut oil is used as a natural remedy because it contains lauric acid and a derivative called monolaurin that may have some antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties. It also contains medium-chain triglycerides, a kind of fat that is absorbed and metabolized more efficiently than other fats, and this might help promote weight loss. Moreover, coconut oil may raise HDL (good cholesterol) that help prevent heart disease.

There is, however, limited scientific studies to support these health claims. According to the British Heart Foundation, there is insufficient good quality research to provide a definitive answer on whether saturated fat from coconut oil is healthier. Based on the American Heart Association suggestion of limiting saturated fat to no more than 13 grams a day, one should not consume more than about one tablespoon of coconut oil. In fact, both the American Heart Association and the National Heart Foundation recommend avoiding the use of coconut oil for cooking, though both their websites include recipes that contain reduced-fat coconut milk.

Coconut is technically a fruit but nutritionally coconut is classified as a nut. Its flesh is high in fat. A 100-gram pack of coconut pieces contains 29.7 grams of saturated fat and 354 calories. About coconut oil, it contains about 90 percent of saturated fat, which is higher than butter (about 64 percent), beef fat (40 percent), or lard (40 percent). Too much saturated fat in the diet is unhealthy because it raises LDL cholesterol levels that can boost the risk of heart disease.

But interestingly, a study, which was published in 1981, reported that people in Polynesia and Sri Lanka eat high amounts of coconut products (with up to 60 percent of their caloric intake coming from the saturated fat of coconut oil) daily and they did not seem to have high rates of heart disease. The study started the observations in the 1960s, before western foods were prevalent in the diets of either culture.

Yet the researchers, who conducted a review of 21 studies published in 2016 in ‘Nutrition Reviews’, disagree on the fact that people who eat a lot of coconut products do not experience negative heart complications. They explained that these people were eating either the flesh of the fruit or coconut cream as part of a traditional diet, and not just adding the oil to their Western-style meals. Also, it is likely that other factors like genetics, overall diet and daily physical activity may act to neutralize any negative impact that a high coconut intake can have on heart health. They also rejected claim that coconut oils act differently in the body than other types of saturated fat.

Lastly, a new study published in the ‘Journal of the American College of Cardiology’ has found that having high HDL did not protect against heart attacks or stroke. People with the highest levels (over 70 mg/dl) had an increased risk of death from non-heart or stroke-related causes compared to those with more middling ranges (about 41 to 60 mg/dl).

While coconut is a wonderful flavor and is an essential ingredient for preparing Thai dish, only small amount of it should be added to the diet. There are other much healthier fat sources like olive oil. For heart disease prevention, one should also focus on vegetables, fruits, whole grains and lean products.




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