Health: Is Our Desi Infatuation with Ghee and Coconut Oil Healthy?
The two ingredients may be the rising stars in the world of superfoods, and rightly so—but be prudent while adding them to your diet, and stay away from food fads like ghee-and butter-infused coffee and tea.
As South Asians, we are either team ghee or coconut oil or both. We love our gheewala paratha and meen murringakka curry made with coconut oil.
Incidentally these two—ghee and coconut oil—are also rising stars in the world of health food fads. Like acai berries, chia seeds, turmeric, and a host of other natural food items, they are now considered “superfoods” by the health industry.
How healthy are the two ingredients?
Opinion about how healthy ghee and coconut oil really are, is divided among the proponents of the traditional diet followed by South Asians, and the scientific evidence available to us. Fortunately, there is also some convergence.
Ayurveda, India’s 5,000-year-old traditional “science of life,” recognizes ghee to be a healthy source of edible fat. It is said to be advantageous to humans in more ways than one: it improves memory by strengthening the brain, lubricates connective tissues to increase flexibility, decreases inflammation, and improves how efficiently the human heart functions.
However, in the scientific world, there are some red flags about overconsumption of ghee. Concerns have been raised about the high rate of coronary heart disease among Indians, fueled by a diet filled with saturated fats. The American Heart Association recommends limiting the consumption of saturated fats to less than 7% of the total calorie intake, to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. The finding aligns with the results of a study published by Ayu—an international quarterly journal of research in Ayurveda.
As to coconut oil, Ayurveda sees it as a beneficial ingredient: from helping in weight loss, to spiking metabolism, lowering cholesterol levels, and boosting immunity. Extra virgin coconut oil is known to have medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), the most notable of which is lauric acid, which is responsible for raising the HDL cholesterol levels (also known as good cholesterol). Among the other health benefits attributed to coconut oil are reduction of inflammation in joints and the gut, as well as lowering of blood sugar levels due to the slow release of sugar in the blood stream.
On the flip side, there is some evidence to show how coconut oil can increase the risk of heart disease. A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) reviewed findings from 21 other studies, including eight clinical trials, in which volunteers consumed different types of fats such as coconut oil, butter, and unsaturated vegetable oils (olive, sunflower, safflower, and corn oil) for short periods of time. Coconut oil is said to have raised LDL cholesterol levels (known as bad cholesterol), although to a far lesser extent than butter.
Much like ghee, research about the benefits offered by coconut oil is currently sketchy. Asian Indian proponents of coconut oil often say, “But my grandparents used coconut oil in their cooking and they were totally healthy.” I’m definitely not against ancient food wisdom, but it’s important to acknowledge that this is mainly anecdotal evidence, and does not take into account the stressful and sedentary lifestyle we currently experience in foreign countries. Also, our traditional diet that once included fresh and nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, nuts, and whole grains is quite different from our contemporary Americanized diet that is high in processed food, refined grains, sodium, fats, and sugar. So, comparisons are futile, if not far-fetched.
The ways in which ghee and coconut oil can be added to our diet.
No one can deny, however, that in small doses, both ghee and coconut oil can be advantageous. Don’t follow the current fad of adding ghee or coconut oil to your smoothies, chai, and coffee, unless you work out intensively or your work is highly physical in nature. Instead follow our traditional uses of these two wonderful ingredients, for maximum health benefits.
South Asians have restricted their use of the two ingredients to curries and the occasional ghee parathas. Ghee has a rich nutty flavor and a high smoke point, which makes it perfect for frying, sautéing, and roasting. With 100% saturated fats, no protein or lactose, ghee spikes the digestive fires (agni) and improves absorption and assimilation of micronutrients.
Coconut oil is light and sweet, with a subtle flavor of actual coconut, which makes it versatile for both savory as well as sweet dishes.
It’s essential that you seek a dietitian to help you tailor your nutrition plan based on your blood test results and exercise intensity. For Indians who engage in minimum physical activity, the recommended diet can include lightly fried eggs in ghee, occasional ghee-slathered paratha, khichdi topped with ghee, and coconut-infused curries. For daily cooking, use unsaturated oils like canola or safflower oil.
Jenifer Tharani, MS, RD, LD is a registered and licensed dietitian nutritionist with training from Emory University Hospital. The main focus of her nutrition consulting practice is working with South Asians to prevent and manage diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.
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