Is Coconut Oil Healthy or Unhealthy? The Real Truth

by Naomi Tupper on March 15, 2013 · 4 comments

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Coconut oil is being heralded as the latest super food, with claims that it has benefits to those suffering from diabetes to irritable bowel disease and a whole host of diseases in between.

Not only this, but advocates for this type of oil claim it helps to reduce weight and lower dietary cholesterol, but is there any evidence behind these claims, or are they simply the latest money making scheme from producers of the product?

Why do people choose coconut oil?

Not only is coconut oil being marketed as a miracle fat, it is also attractive to vegans as a source of saturated fat being plant rather than animal based.  It can be used with good results in baking and has a high smoke point, meaning it is also suited to frying.

What type of fat is coconut oil?

Extra virgin coconut oil is over 90% saturated fat.  This is the same type of fat that is found in meat, dairy and butter; however coconut oil is oil at room temperature rather than solid oil, as it is usually the case for saturated fats.  Pure coconut oil contains no hydrogenated fats, although hydrogenated forms may be found in processed foods.

Coconut oil differs from other types of saturated fats in the type of fatty acids that are present.  In this type of fat, there is a mix of short and medium chain fatty acids, the majority of which are lauric acid (around 44%) and acid (around 16.8%).

Coconut oil contains the same amount of calories per gram as all other fat and one tablespoon of this oil will provide around 117 calories and 14 grams of total fat, of which 12g is saturated.

Is coconut oil healthier than other fats?

Coconut oil may be better for overall health than some types of fat, for example trans fats and possibly some animal fats, due to its unusual combination of fatty acids.

However, there is no evidence that coconut oil is any more beneficial to health than oils containing mainly unsaturated fats such as canola, soya and olive oils.

While there is some evidence that coconut oil component myristic acid may increase levels of ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, studies evaluating this have also seen an increase in ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol.  This increase of LDL is a concern, as this is the one of the most important factors in heart disease prevention.

It is recommended that saturated fat make up 10% of less of your total calorie intake, so very small amounts of coconut oil in the diet in place of other saturated fats will probably do no harm, however it is important to note that there is not definitive evidence to say it is a healthier option than other fats.

Unsaturated fats such as olive oil have strong evidence of their health benefits behind them and are therefore a more reliable choice when choosing a healthy fat.

Does coconut oil help to relieve symptoms of or prevent chronic disease?

Advocates of the coconut oil swear by its use in prevention and treatment of diseases such as diabetes, chronic fatigue, irritable bowel syndrome and hyperthyroidism, in addition to high cholesterol and weight loss.

However, it should be noted that although people who use coconut oil for these purposes are often those who believe in the effectiveness of natural and alternative medicines, the Natural Medicines Database states that there is insufficient evidence available to say if there is any truth behind these reported effects.

Does coconut oil promote weight loss?

As with any fat, coconut oil contains a large amount of calories per gram and is therefore very energy dense. This means that excessive consumption is likely to lead to weight gain.

It has been theorized that the medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil are more easily burnt than longer fatty acids, but there is no evidence to support the claim that this can aid weight loss or enhance fat burning in the body.

One small study did find that supplementation with coconut oil rather than alternative fats resulted in a modest reduction in waist circumference, but no effects were seen on BMI or fat mass.

Many studies into the effect of medium chain fatty acids have been extrapolated to coconut oil, despite significant difference in composition.  Further investigation is required to find out exactly how the combination of fats in coconut oil behaves in the human body.

Does coconut oil lower cholesterol levels?

Studies in the area have conflicting results, with some animal models showing lower LDL and higher HDL with coconut oil and others finding that it contributes to hypercholesteremia.

Based on this evidence, the claim that coconut oil lowers cholesterol is not convincing, however it may be a viable alternative to other saturated fat sources if it does not contribute to raised cholesterol levels. (See also: Foods to lower your cholesterol)

Further research in humans is required is required to determine this definitely.

In summary

There is very little evidence that supports the perpetrated benefits of coconut oil in terms of health.  Further research and long term studies are required to investigate these claims before coconut oil can be considered a healthy alternative to other fats.

Coconut oil is a saturated fat, and as such should be limited to very small quantities.  Whilst a little coconut oil may be a viable alternative to other saturated fats such as butter, there is no evidence that it should replace unsaturated fats such as olive oil, which has well substantiated research into the benefits associated with its intake.

References used in this article

Is Coconut Oil Healthy or Unhealthy? The Real Truth by
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Naomi Tupper
About the author

Naomi studied Nutrition and Dietetics and Biotechnology. She is a certified dietician with experience in Type 2 diabetes and menu planning for weight loss. Naomi is a contributor for our Diet and Nutrition sections. You can connect with her on Facebook and Google+

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