Coconut Oil: It’s not poison, but it’s definitely not a miracle food either

A quick google search of coconut oil will lead you down two paths at the moment:

(1) Harvard professors calling it pure poison

(2) Wellness blogs praising it as the cure to nearly everything

So what’s the deal? Should you throw your container of coconut oil in the garbage or continue to slather it on every food you eat?

The Proposed Hype

The preacher of coconut oil will likely highlight the following:

  • It’s has medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are ~amazing for our health~
  • It has saturated fat, but that is good for us now
  • It increases our good cholesterol (HDL-C)
  • It has a high antioxidant content

So let’s break this down.

The Evidence

Starting with MCTs, small research studies are showing some benefits in it’s use for weight loss and Alzheimer’s. It is proposed that it may be due to the unique way in which your body uses them. They bypass the traditional way fats are absorbed, leading to a quicker uptake by the body and can act as readily available source of energy. This may help in weight loss, as your body may use it for energy versus storing as fat. In Alzheimer’s, the proposed theory is that the brain will utilize the MCTs as an energy source, instead of the typical glucose, which may have a protective effect.

While that all sounds great, there is some problems with this claim. My main concern is that coconut oil does not equal MCTs. Sure, coconut oil contain some MCTs but it is not an 100% source. The above studies are looking at use of an 100% MCT oil supplement. We cannot assume that using coconut oil will translate to the same benefits. Additionally, there is much debate in the nutrition world as to what the actual percentage of MCTs found in coconut oil is, with some arguing it to be quite low.

But if there is a possible benefit of using it, why not?

This has to do with its saturated fat content. Let me get this clear  – I am not against saturated fat in your diet, but let’s review a little nutrition history to get a better understanding of what this all means.

Back in the day of power suits and scrunchies, saturated fat was thought to be the devil incarnate resulting in the low-fat diet trend (“Non-fat Yogurt” Seinfeld episode, anyone?). More recent research has actually shown it may not be as harmful as once thought. What was found was that if you replaced saturated fat with sugar*, you saw an increased cardiovascular risk. But what often gets skipped over is that it also found that choosing unsaturated fats (olive oil) over saturated fats (coconut oil) significantly improved cardiovascular health.  So the harm comes in when you start using coconut oil as your main source of cooking oil. This is likely doing your body more bad then good. Speaking to effect on our cholesterol, coconut oil does raise our good cholesterol, but also our bad ones. 

Now let’s not forget about the antioxidant claims. Unfortunately, these claims are not backed by evidence at this time. A recent study looked to analyze the antioxidant content of coconut oil and found squat. Sadly, no antioxidants in coconut oil. 

Bottom Line

Coconut oil may have some moderate health benefits but it is not a superfood and should not be the main fat source in your diet. I would recommend reaching for extra virgin olive oil first, as this is an oil proven to be a good source of antioxidants and contains those unsaturated fats your heart loves. 

Will you find coconut oil in my pantry? Most definitely. It has a wonderful flavor and is a good oil to cook with especially when using higher heats. When purchasing, aim to grab a cold-pressed virgin coconut oil. This type is less processed and has not been exposed to high heats that can be damaging to the overall nutrition content of fats.

Finally, what also always needs to be remembered is that individual foods have little impact on our health. It is the sum of our dietary habits that matter. A person who eats coconut oil as a main fat source, but has a diet that consists mostly of complex carbohydrates, vegetables, fruits and legumes is making healthier choices than a diet that has olive oil as it’s main cooking oil but contains high amounts of meat, simple sugars and processed foods.

So keep that coconut oil in your diet, just don’t think it’s the the magical ingredient to a healthy lifestyle.

*sugar does not equal carbohydrates FYI.

References

  1. Sacks, F., Litchtenstein, A., Wu, J., Appel, L., Creager, M., Van Horn, L. (2017). Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 1-23.
  2. De Alzaa, F., Guillaume, C., & Ravetti, L. (2018). Evaluation of Chemical and Physical Changes in Different Commercial Oils during Heating. Acta Scientific Nutritional Health, 2-11.
  3. Eyres, L., Eyres, M., Chisholm, A., & Brown, R. (2016). Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutrition Reviews, 267-280.