Filed under: Fats
Olive oil is known for its flavor, versatility, and health-promoting qualities. Nutrition experts think olive oil may be partly responsible for the many health benefits associated with the “Mediterranean diet,” an eating pattern that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, and “healthy” fats. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat—one of the healthy fats. It contains vitamins A, E, and K, plus many other beneficial compounds that might reduce your risk of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Heating olive oil or holding it at high temperatures for long periods of time can reduce its beneficial qualities. If you use olive oil for deep-frying, it should be discarded after one or two uses.
Interestingly, olives can “pick up” airborne toxins present in smoke from fires, car exhaust, and other pollutants. So it might be a good idea to choose olive oils produced from olives grown in areas where air quality is good most of the growing season. This is likely true for all edible oils.
Olive oil can be used in countless ways: Drizzle on pasta or bread, brush lightly on meats or fish, coat vegetables for roasting, or use nearly any way that butter or other fats can be used—even baking! Of course, as with all fats, be sure to use olive oil in moderation to avoid gaining weight.
According to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, solid fats and added sugars (SoFAS) contribute nearly one-third of the average person’s daily calories!
Solid fats, as the name implies, are solid at room temperature; they include both saturated and trans fats. They tend to raise “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, increasing your risk for heart disease. Sources of solid fats include butter, cheese, meats, and foods made with these products, such as cookies, pizza, burgers, and fried foods. For more information, read how to tell the difference between solid fats and oils.
Added sugars can contribute to weight gain and tooth decay. Although some foods such as fruit and milk contain naturally occurring sugars, added sugars are usually found in processed foods such as sodas, sports or energy drinks, candy, and most dessert items. It can be hard to identify added sugars on food labels, but you can learn how to recognize hidden sources of sugar.
Foods containing SoFAS are often high in calories but don’t provide many important nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, or fiber. Fortunately, it’s easy to cut back on SoFAS by eating a diet rich in whole foods such fruits and vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and lean sources of protein, and following the MyPlate guidelines.
Coconut oil has a sweet taste that lends distinct flavor to foods, and it contains several saturated fats—something the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest we eat less of. That is because eating saturated fats has been linked to atherosclerosis (“hardening of the arteries”) and increased risk of heart disease.
Although coconut oil is highly saturated, it has different types of saturated fats. One of these—lauric acid—is regularly touted as having performance benefits. Lauric acid is referred to as a “medium chain fatty acid” (MCFA), and the body processes MCFAs differently than it does “long chain” fatty acids (LCFAs). Importantly, MCFAs are digested more rapidly than long chain fatty acids, so they are quickly absorbed and available as an energy source. Some research suggests MCFAs might help to optimize and maintain glycogen stores, thus extending endurance performance. Not only that, MCFAs are less likely than other fats to be stored as fat—a plus if you’re concerned about weight control. The performance claims surrounding MCFAs and coconut oil have not held up, and claims about their weight loss benefits need more research.
The American College of Sports Medicine and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics joint guidelines for Nutrition and Athletic Performance indicate that MCFAs do not provide any performance benefit. To date, only two studies have shown improvements in performance. On the other hand, MCFAs have been shown to increase the body’s use of “fats” as fuels, reducing food intake, so such products may promote weight loss. There just isn’t enough information available to make any scientific conclusions.
If you choose to eat coconut oil, do so in moderation for its unique flavor and texture, because its health and performance benefits are still open for consideration.