The secrets of the benefits of consuming coconut oil in our diet has passed on unwritten from one generation to another. With a few myths rising about the disadvantages of coconut oil, Goans have backed out from including it in their meals. MELINDA PEREIRA KAMAT explains the health benefits of the oil
If you have roots in a coconut growing belt, then you should be loyal to your genes which crave for the natural cooking oil - the Coconut Oil and not any of the marketed refined cooking oil brands. Use unrefined coconut oil (locally pressed) in daily cooking and look younger, live healthier and longer if
you respect your Goan identity and ancestral traditional dietetic wisdom. I reached this exciting conclusion on basis of my own empirical studies of a sample of Goan population as a sociologist, agricultural scientist and an intern in Dietetics. I noticed a very disturbing picture of over-nutrition and lifestyle related diseases.
From the nutritional assessment of patients, biochemical parameters, clinical signs, symptoms, diet recall, diet history and personal interviews, I have come to the conclusion that it is the excess use of oil rich in polyunsaturated fats (PUFA), sedentary lifestyle, less exposure to sunlight, faulty eating patterns which are the root causes of most health problems in Goa besides other contributing factors like alcohol, smoking, use of additives in food etc. With a fear psychosis created by the MNC sponsored weight loss industry, health professionals, some bookish dieticians, Goans gave up using raw coconut oil (harve khobrel) as a garnish on papads, roasted dry fish, tonak, curries, sukhe, kismur, shaak, bhaji, bharths , tarkari etc. Some vested professional interests in the weight loss industry in Goa are afraid of losing business if the secret of natural weight loss or rather time tested formula to avoid weight gain is made known to public. Therefore despite the proven medical importance of Coconut oil it got a bad publicity.
Precious lipase enzyme gets destroyed when any oil is heated at 40-45 C. This lipase needs to be protected if we want to reduce either abdominal obesity or increased lipoprotein lipase activity which is the root cause of all cardiovascular problems. We have to reduce consumption of refined oils which are greatest enemies of our heart that are subjected to high temperature during extraction damaging its molecular structure. During this process, valuable vitamins like A, D, E get destroyed. Locally pressed oils are the best with excellent heart protecting abilities. Both thick coconut milk and grated coconut as garnish in any preparation should be added just before serving food or the lipase enzyme gets destroyed at room temperature. Use of less oil helps in secretion of adiponectin hormone which regulates insulin levels in our body and maintains our weight. There are some oils which interfere with secretion of this adiponectin hormone and the final result is obesity. One teaspoon of locally crushed coconut oil weighs just 2.5gm as compared to other oils which are approximately 5 gm. Coconut oil has less absorption rate.
Another trend noticed is patients suffering from diabetes, cardiovascular problems have switched over to use of olive oil in Goan food. Olive oil cannot tolerate high temperatures of Goan cooking. Olive oil is a health food or gives protection against diabetes, heart diseases when it is not exposed to heat and used as a garnish. The National Coconut Board, Kerala has done a lot of research on benefits of unrefined coconut oil which is free of cholesterol, can tolerate high temperatures , does not inhibit insulin binding , improves utilization of blood glucose, increases metabolism, protects against various cancers, helpful in case of osteoporosis, fights against peptic ulcers, helps in conserving omega 3 fatty acid, increases good cholesterol in the body, decreases serum triglycerides, promotes growth of beneficial microbes in the intestine . Hence as per WHO recommendation about 10 percent of our total calories should come from fresh coconut or coconut oil along with less quantity of kokum butter (bhindell) and unrefined sesame seed oil (ghanitalem tillel). Though coconut is a saturated fat it is not dangerous like saturated fat found in red meat. Use of the above 3 oils will help us in maintaining a proper omega-3, omega 6 ratio and also SFA: MUFA: PUFA ratio giving protection against heart diseases. Goans are being misguided by news items that say consume nuts like almonds, walnuts, olive oil containing omega 3 fatty acids for health benefits. We have to be very cautious that the omega 3 level does not cross 1percent of the total calorie requirement per day as it could cause a haemorrhagic stroke and increase in bad cholesterol.
The Health Department needs to start a rapid campaign explaining health benefits of coconut, coconut oil besides focus on the quantity of nuts to be eaten per day because the ingredients which we use in Goan cooking also contain omega 3. The reason for increasing abdominal obesity and bad cholesterol (LDL) is excess use of PUFA oils like sunflower, soybean, safflower etc which deposits as fat in adipose tissues. Repeatedly using PUFA oil for deep frying converts it into trans-fat which clogs the arteries. For the past 3 years, I have maintained my weight due to use of locally pressed coconut oil, consumption of coconut gravies both in raw and heated form. I have not made any compromises on my traditional diet which includes oily food, sweets, high soluble fibre foods, coconut and fish. I have not suffered from the yo-yo effect of putting on weight immediately after losing weight nor have I joined any gymnasium to reduce weight. If we want Goan students to excel in sports at international level, coconut oil needs to be promoted since it gives instant energy to athletes. Coconut oil helps in proper functioning of the thyroid gland and prevents obesity due to thermogenesis (fat burning inside the body). I can vouch for this property of thermogenesis from my personal experience. Wrong choice of oils especially PUFA in certain recipes causes free radicals or invisible toxins which are a cause for cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases etc. Our focus needs to be on the type of oil, quantity, quality, raw/heated form of oil, choice of oils and nuts in Goan cooking, followed by appropriate cooking methods and temperatures. So cook for a healthier lifestyle-bring back coconut oil in your kitchen. The results would be seen in a few months.
(The author is a full time teacher, food columnist, agricultural graduate and post graduate in Sociology with special interest in traditional diets and expertise in authentic Goan food and food anthropology)