Reader Andy writes:
There is a buzz right now about coconut oil and that it is actually good for you. I remember not too long ago when it was deemed the Devil incarnate. It is possible for one saturated fat to be better than another?
It’s certainly possible, Andy, though I personally I tend not to put much faith in these sorts of flavor-of-the-month claims. It’s true that when saturated fats were thought to be the root of all evil, coconut oil was considered to be The White Death. That’s understandable since coconut oil is over 90% saturated fat (compare that to butter which is about 65% saturated fat).
Now that it seems clear that saturated fats aren’t really bad for you, some people are wondering: could they actually be GREAT for you? That’s probably overstating the matter. Fats are nutrients, that much is obvious, but we’ve all been burned by various “authoritative” studies touting the amazing nutritional benefits of this or that nutrient/ingredient.
But not all studies are created equal. Lest we forget, thousands upon thousands of nutritional studies are churned out by university departments and independent labs every year. The vast majority of them are very small samples of a few dozen or a few hundred participants, tracked over a few months or a few years. Their results — while they may well earn their writers raises or even tenure — should be considered little more than informed conjecture (especially when they’re amplified/exaggerated by journalists).
The gold-plated studies follow thousands of subjects for many years or even decades. But those are rare because they’re so amazingly cost and labor-intensive. The Women’s Health Initiative was one of these, and it showed no correlation between intake of fat — any kind of fat — and disease. That study isn’t the final word on nutrition of course (there never will be one) but I think it’s strong evidence refuting a major current in American popular culture: that single ingredients or nutrients can save us or damn us depending on how much of them we eat.
Maybe it all goes back to the days of the medicine show and Dr. Wilson’s Miracle Elixirs. Who knows? Most doctors impart this simple wisdom to patients who are generally healthy: eat a mix. Eat vegetables, eat grains, eat fats, eat sugars, meats, dairy, what-have-you in reasonable proportions. That advice is pretty much bullet-proof in my view. It won’t support a multi-billion dollar diet and nutrition industry of course, but there you go.
Guess I didn’t really answer the question, Andy, but the rant felt good! Thanks!