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While Dr. Oz continues to tout the health benefits of coconut oil, the American Heart Association argues otherwise. The contradicting advice is confusing to say the least.

Why Coconut Oil?

The fats in our diet are made up of fatty acids linked together into chains, similar to the classic plastic chain links found in nearly every toybox. The length of these chains vary depending on the type of fat, ranging in categories from short to very long. Coconut oil falls into the medium group. Why does size matter? The size largely impacts where and when in the digestive process that this fat will be broken down and how well it will be absorbed into our system. The shorter size of coconut oil is thought to be less absorbed than that of other saturated fats such as butter.

While I have not come across the science supporting this idea in great length, what I have learned is that the type of saturated fat found in coconut oil does not raise our lousy LDL cholesterol levels to the same degree that saturated fats from animals (butter, lard, red meat) do. This is surely why the American Heart Association has yet to change their stance on these tasty tropical oils. With the majority of the American population battling high cholesterol and other heart health issues, health experts are not quite ready to recommend the addition of yet another saturated fat to our diet.

Why Olive Oil?

Olive oil remains atop the leaderboards in the race of healthy fats. One of the all-star oils of the Mediterranean Diet, the most highly accredited diet worldwide (along with the DASH diet). And the science is overflowing with support for this rich oil.

There is Certainly Room For Both.

We stock both types in our kitchen (along with sesame, flax and canola).

I keep the olive oil at the ready for our morning French Toast, midday sweet potato fries, or the roasted chicken and veggies the evening may bring. This oil fits the bill! But if I am preparing no-bake cookies or attempting to bring a slightly unique flavor to our stirfry, I will opt for the coconut oil.

As one of the annoying things dietitians everywhere are preaching, “all foods fit”.

The way I see it, olive oil is numero uno in the field of fats. Butter and lard are towards the bottom of that list. And coconut oil is somewhere in the middle. Therefore if butter is your frequent flying fat of choice, coconut oil would be a great switch for you! However, if you tend to stick with olive or canola oil, keep on keeping on (your heart and brain will thank you!).

Though for the coconut lovers everywhere, remain hopeful! This trendy ingredient hit supermarket shelves only recently. The saturated fat found in chocolate was once demonized as a contributor to heart disease, yet is now believed to be safe.

What we do know is that unsaturated fats (think those made from plants, nuts, seeds, olives and fatty fish) are heart healthy. Aim to include these in your diet instead of those made of saturated fats (butter, lard, coconut or palm oil) or trans-fats (partially hydrogenated oils).

For more information on how to incorporate healthy fats into your family’s diet, visit choosemyplate.gov.

Jessica Corwin, MPH, RDN

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