Ask a Dietitian

Send Registered Dietitian Alice Ma your nutrition and food questions at nutrition@moscowfood.coop. We will do our best to answer every question, and will select for the column those that may be most useful to a larger audience of readers.

Coconut oil seems to be all the rage today. We use it for health and beauty and to cook with. But it's still a saturated fat and I'm concerned that I may be consuming too much fat. Is it something to consume in moderation?

 If you’re new to the topic of fats and their various effects on heart health, here’s a brief intro. There are several different types of fats. Unsaturated fats, which make up most of the fat content in avocados, fish, and nuts, are generally known as “healthy” fats because they help raise our HDL (high-density lipoprotein) or “good cholesterol” levels, which work to reduce plaque buildup in our arteries. In contrast, saturated fats, which can be found in animal products such as meat, cream, and butter, increase our levels of LDL (low-density lipoprotein) or “bad cholesterol.” This leads to the buildup of plaque in our arteries.

Compared to most plant foods, coconut contains a high amount of saturated fat. A tablespoon of coconut oil contains about 12 grams of saturated fat. By comparison, a tablespoon of butter contains 7 grams of saturated fat. So why do some perceive coconut oil as a healthier option than butter? Well, we can further break down saturated fat into different types. Palmitic acid, the primary saturated fat in butter, is associated with plaque buildup in arteries. On the other hand, lauric acid, which is the saturated fat found in coconut, has been found to raise HDL cholesterol levels. However, at the same time, the overall saturated fat in coconut oil will still raise LDL cholesterol levels. While there is a potential benefit to consuming coconut oil, there isn’t enough research to support that the benefit of raised HDL outweighs the risk of increasing LDL.

In conclusion, at this point, the evidence that suggests there are health benefits to consuming coconut oil isn’t quite strong enough to warrant using coconut oil in place of other fats, especially when there are other options to choose from. If you’re oiling a pan for baking or sautéing on the stovetop, nut oils and olive oil would both be great low saturated fat options. If your favorite cookie, cake, or brownie recipe calls for butter or coconut oil, try replacing some or all of it with an equal volume of mashed avocado. Since avocado has a similar creamy consistency to butter or coconut oil, the texture of the final product is almost identical to the original. As with many indulgent ingredients, there will be a recipe or two for which replacing the coconut oil with a more nutritious substitute just doesn’t do the trick. This is where moderation will come into play.

 Alice Ma is a Co-op volunteer and registered dietitian who will answer your questions about nutrition and food. Alice received her Master’s degree in nutrition and dietetics at the University of Utah. After spending a year serving as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Ellensburg, WA, she became a resident of Moscow and currently works at Washington State University as the Registered Dietitian for Dining Services. Alice is passionate about food, nutrition, and sustainability and is excited about being involved with the Moscow Food Co-op and local community.