Coconut Oil, Behind the Hype

Coconut OilCoconut oil is one of the hottest foods on the market, but is it as healthy as the hype promises? Let’s explore the evidence on this tropical nut.

The news is out! Coconut oil is hailed as the next super food hero in a jar, promising everything from weight loss to protection against Alzheimer’s disease. While coconut oil has been used as part of the traditional diet in some Asian countries for years, the proof supporting the list of health benefits attributed to its use is not strong.

Coconut’s saturated fat. Coconut oil is 92 percent saturated fat. For over 70 years, research established a connection between saturated fat and heart disease risk. It’s thought saturated fat raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, which in turn creates inflammation in the body that leads to heart disease. However, a recent literature review (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2010) suggested that saturated fat might not be a villain in heart disease risk, feeding the debate over whether coconut oil is harmful for your health.

This hypothesis of saturated fat and heart risk could stem from the fact that Americans mostly eat saturated fat found in butter, meats, eggs and dairy products, which contribute to inflammation. Thus, it seems natural to conclude that all saturated fats are bad. Though coconut oil is high in saturated fats, it contains a very high percentage of a fat known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Some experts claim the benefits of MCTs may outweigh the risk of saturated fat in coconut. Saturated fat is often stored as body fat, while MCTs are quickly metabolized by the liver and used for energy. Though excess calories the body doesn’t use for energy are stored as fat.

Barry Sears, PhD, a lipids (fats) scientist formerly of Boston University School of Medicine and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that coconut oil’s high level of saturated fats and MCTs are not such a good thing. “Two disadvantages are this rapid uptake by the liver. MCTs have a slight blood sugar-lowering effect that may lead to people struggling to manage their blood sugar, especially for athletes and people with diabetes. Then there’s the saturated fat content’s pro-inflammatory quality that cannot be ignored. Inflammation from the LDL is the bad boy of heart disease,” says Sears.

Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, Chair, Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, says, “While coconut oil raises LDL, it boosts HDL cholesterol, the ‘good’ kind, better than other fats. Research so far, though, is limited, so we still don’t know how it affects heart disease. The ability to boost HDL makes it ‘less bad’, yet it’s not the best choice of fat overall for heart health, as any fat that raises LDL should be limited.”

Coconut’s potential health benefits. Few weight loss studies using coconut oil show that it can help promote weight loss when compared with other oils. However, one study (Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 2008) showed a modest increase in weight lost with those using MCT compared to olive oil. Keep in mind that this research was conducted on MCT oil, not coconut oil, which also contains high levels of saturated fat. Thus far, coconut oil has limited evidence for weight loss.

As for easing Alzheimer’s symptoms? One potential link may be ketones—a source of energy for the brain that has been linked with improved quality of life for some Alzheimer’s sufferers. It just so happens that when the body metabolizes coconut oil, ketones are produced. Still, there’s no direct proof to date that coconut oil provides brain benefits.

Best advice on coconut oil. We do need to include fat as part of a healthy diet and active lifestyle. The goal is to get the right amount of the right kind of fat. Coconut oil appears to be better than saturated animal fats, such as butter and fatty meats, and trans fats found in partially hydrogenated oils, but not as good vegetable oils, which are rich in healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as such as first cold-expeller pressed extra virgin olive oil.

At present, many experts in the field concur that until we have more studies, you should use coconut oil sparingly, as in flavoring Asian and Thai dishes, and the occasional piecrust, biscuits or cupcakes. Follow these healthy fat guidelines:

  • Use extra virgin olive oil for cooking and salad dressings.
  • Eat oily fish, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, at least two times a week.
  • Toss omega-3 rich walnuts and flaxseeds onto salads.
  • Serve omega-3 fortified eggs for breakfast.

Fat Comparison

Fat (per 1 Tbsp) Saturated
unsaturated (g)
unsaturated (g)
Beef Fat 6.4 5.4 0.5
Butter 7.2 3.3 0.5
Canola Oil 0.9 8.2 4.1
Coconut Oil 11.8 0.8 0.2
Corn Oil 1.7 3.3 8.0
Flaxseed Oil 1.3 2.5 10.2
Lard (pork fat) 5.0 5.8 1.4
Margarine (stick)* 1.6 4.2 2.4
Olive Oil 1.8 10.0 1.2
Palm Kernel Oil 11.1 1.6 0.2
Palm Oil 6.7 5.0 1.2
Safflower Oil 0.8 10.2 2.0
Sesame Oil 1.9 5.4 5.6
Soybean Oil 2.0 3.2 7.8
Sunflower Oil 1.4 2.7 8.9

Source: USDA’ *May vary depending on brand

Published in Environmental Nutrition.


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