Like fashion trends, food trends go around in cycles. That’s one reason the topic of diet is so interesting and frustrating, all at the same time.
Right now it seems coconut oil is back in, like a pair of bell bottoms, neon leg warmers, or a curly perm!
Some years back it was reviled as damaging to heart health, and something to be avoided at all costs.
But these days, coconut oil is making a comeback, and many are starting to place it in the ‘health’ food category.
The thing is, it’s high in saturated fat. So, does that mean we should avoid coconut oil, or is there more to it than that?
As you know, the majority of health care professionals and the mainstream media, keep repeating the need to avoid saturated fats, yet despite this advice, the levels of heart disease and obesity are skyrocketing. Something doesn’t add up.
On the other side of the coin, though, a quick Google search reveals coconut oil is being claimed as a cure-all miracle product.
I think it’s clear we need to be cautious, and avoid falling for the hype, on both sides.
What Is Coconut Oil?
Oils and fats can be classified as short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), or long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs).
The majority of fats and oils in our diet are made up of long-chain fatty acids.
It’s true that coconut oil is high in saturated fat. However, it differs from butter, for example, in that it contains medium-chain fatty acids.
There are, in fact, very few dietary sources of medium-chain fats, making coconut oil pretty unique.
These medium-chain fats are absorbed directly by the liver, meaning they provide instant energy, rather than being stored up. As a comparison, butter contains long-chain fatty acids, which are deposited in the fat cells and burn off more slowly than coconut oil.
Why Lauric Acid Is Good
Many of coconut oil’s health benefits are attributed to the presence of lauric acid.
Almost 50 percent of the fat found in coconut oil is lauric acid. When it is present in the body, lauric acid is converted into monolaurin, a compound which is thought to have antiviral, antifungal and antibacterial properties.
Interestingly, the only other source of lauric is breast milk, which may explain the reason breastfed babies get fewer infections.
Lauric acid increases levels of good HDL cholesterol, as well as LDL cholesterol, but this is not thought to negatively affect the overall ratio of the two.
So, what does science say about the health benefits of coconut oil?
Is Coconut Oil Healthy: The Research
There’s no doubt coconut oil has received a fare bit of flack in recent years.
Thomas Brenna, professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, has extensively reviewed the literature on coconut oil. He suggests one reason for the stigma against coconut oil,
Most of the studies involving coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which researchers used because they needed to raise the cholesterol levels of their rabbits in order to collect certain data… Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective. And maybe it isn’t so bad for you after all.
Anything that has been hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated creates trans fats. And, these are extremely bad for our health, and should be avoided.
However, if coconut oil is processed correctly, it does not appear to be damaging to health, as we shall see.
Coconut Oil and Weight Loss
It has been suggested that replacing long-chain fatty acids with medium-chain fatty acids can lead to weight loss, particularly in the abdominal area. One reason for this is because medium-chain fats are burned for energy, rather than being stored up.
So, what does the science say about this?
In one study, researchers found that the medium-chain fats in coconut increased fat burning and calorie expenditure in obese men, and led to reduced fat storage.
When researchers looked at the effect of adding coconut oil to the diet of women with abdominal obesity, they found:
It appears that dietetic supplementation with coconut oil does not cause dyslipidemia (abnormal lipids) and seems to promote a reduction in abdominal obesity.
Another study found that consumption of coconut oil increased both fat burning and calorie expenditure in women.
Researchers have even suggested medium-chain fats may have a potential to prevent obesity by increasing energy expenditure and satiety:
We conclude that MCT (medium-chain fats) increase energy expenditure, may result in faster satiety and facilitate weight control when included in the diet as a replacement for fats containing LCT (long-chain fats).
Coconut Oil and Heart Disease
Because of coconut oil’s high saturated fat content, there has been some concern that it may cause heart disease.
A review of the data in 1992 showed that dietary coconut oil did not lead to high cholesterol levels, or an increased risk of heart disease.
Another review concluded:
There does not appear to be convincing scientific data connecting coconut oil with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, several lines of research would appear to support the use of coconut products as part of a healthy diet.
Taking a look at traditional diets can provide extremely helpful and interesting findings, however it doesn’t always follow that the same results will be achieved when these practices are applied to Western societies.
We need to remember that in many of the populations studied, their diet also consisted of large amounts of fruits, vegetables, and fish, with virtually no refined sugars or processed foods.
Papua New Guinea
Researchers have studied islanders from Trobriand (a small island off of Papua New Guinea), who get around 80 percent of their calories from coconut and coconut oil. They found very low levels of heart disease in this group.
More recent studies have investigated the population of Kitava, where coconut and coconut oil is eaten in large amounts. Researchers found an absence of stroke and heart disease here.
In Indonesia, a study was conducted among the Minangkabau. Researchers noted:
Similar intakes of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids between the cases and controls indicated that the consumption of total fat or saturated fat, including that from coconut, was not a predictor for CHD in this food culture.
Heart disease is common in India, where they eat a lot of coconut and coconut oil. However, researchers concluded:
Results imply no specific role for coconut or coconut oil in the causation of CHD in the present set of Indian patients from Kerala.
Researchers looked at two populations of Polynesians where coconut has been a primary dietary staple. They found that:
Vascular disease is uncommon in both populations and there is no evidence of the high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect in these populations.
So, Is coconut Oil Healthy?
I personally disagree with the current dietary guidelines, which lumps coconut oil into the general classification of “saturated fats.” At the very least, it belongs in its own sub-category.
The fact remains that there is no convincing evidence to prove coconut oil causes heart disease in humans.
On the contrary, as we have seen, coconut-eating groups have some of the lowest incidences of heart disease.
Choose Your Coconut Oil Wisely
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying all coconut oil is healthy.
In fact, conventionally processed coconut oil is extremely unhealthy. If you’re going to cheap-out, you would be better off avoiding coconut oil completely.
How healthy your coconut oil will be, depends on the type of coconuts used and the manufacturing process.
Professor of human nutrition at Cornell University, and an expert on the subject, Tom Brenna said this,
Unhealthy [conventional] coconut oil is produced from dried coconut… It is extracted and then chemically treated in various ways to remove undesirable components and sometimes hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. It is hydrogenated oils, often called ‘trans fats,’ that are associated with cardiovascular disease.
He recommends virgin coconut oil,
Virgin coconut oil is extracted from fresh coconut by homogenizing it into a fine pulp and then gently heating… The coconut oil is skimmed from the top. No harsh treatment.
You want to make sure the oil you choose is a pure, unrefined, and therefore highly stable, otherwise it will be no better for you than most of the oils on your supermarket shelf.
Coconut Oil: What To Look For
Try replacing other fats in your diet, such as omega 6 rich vegetable oils, with coconut oil some of the time. So, when purchasing coconut oil:
- Look for virgin coconut oil, made from fresh coconuts, not dried ‘copra’ (dried meat from coconuts).
- Make sure it is unrefined, and excess heat has not been used in the processing, i.e. the label states cold pressed.
- Look for one that is free from chemical solvents and bleaching agents.
How To Use Coconut Oil
Coconut oil has a wide range of uses, and I don’t just mean in the kitchen. Here are just some of them:
- Whenever you fry, stir-fry or sauté meat, poultry, fish, vegetables, or eggs use coconut oil.
- Add it to your smoothie.
- Make healthy desserts, cakes and biscuits using coconut oil in place of other fats.
- Use it as a body and face moisturizer.
- Use coconut oil to make homemade toothpaste.
- Or, use it as a cradle cap cure — this works amazingly well. I used a small amount on Lois, and with one application the cradle cap had almost all flaked off and disappeared for good.
What do you think — is coconut oil healthy? How do you use it in your home?