Coconut Oil: Healthy or Hype?
The coconut oil conundrum.
I’ve recently been integrating unrefined coconut oil into my cooking; I love the flavor of the oil, which is nutty and not overwhelming in its coconut taste (plus it makes a killer stir fry). But is my new love for the tropical oil healthy, unhealthy, or somewhere in between? I see coconut oil everywhere in grocery stores and on the health food aisle. The internet health claims say it does everything from promoting weight loss and maintaining healthy cholesterol levels, to being an anti-fungal and super virus fighter–but can it really do all that?
What makes coconut oil different from other oils?
To be clear, when I’m discussing coconut oil, I’m talking about unrefined, cold-pressed coconut oil, and not the extensively processed and hydrogenated kind McDonald’s once used to fry their french fries. Unrefined coconut oil maintains the flavor and original properties of the coconut for proposed health benefits. Coconut oil is unique because it is a plant-based fat that’s made of 90% saturated fat (higher even than butter and lard), which during the dietary fat-phobic days would be a big no-no for the health conscious person. However, we are smarter now and know that saturated fat isn’t giving people heart disease. About 60% of the saturated fat in coconut oil is in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). Unlike the long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) found predominately in other high saturated fat foods like butter, lard, and beef fat, MCTs are not packaged into cholesterol after being digested; they head straight to the liver where they are used for energy. So even if we were concerned about dietary saturated fat in itself, most of the fat in coconut oil isn’t turned into cholesterol. Coconut oil’s path of digestion also makes it harder for the MCTs to get stored as fat, so it’s more likely to be burned off as energy and therefore theoretically does not contribute to obesity.
As a dietitian, my question always is: what does the research show? So here are a few highlights of what coconut oil does do, hasn’t yet been proven to do, and won’t do.
What coconut oil does do:
- Modestly increases HDL cholesterol and decreases abdominal fat in overweight women whose diets were supplemented with coconut oil compared to women who consumed soybean oil (reference).
- Makes a safe, all-natural moisturizer for clinically dry skin (reference). Some people are allergic to coconut oil, so test a small area of skin before lathering it all over your face or body.
- Reduces bacterial colonization in patients with dermatitis (reference). The lauric acid found in coconut oil is a natural antifungal & antimicrobial (reference).
What coconut oil hasn’t yet been proven to do:
- Increases feelings of fullness to help reduce food intake (reference).
- Improves insulin sensitivity: all the studies I read utilized purified MCT oil and not natural coconut oil. Since coconut oil does consist of other fats besides MCTs, it can’t definitively be said that coconut oil helps with insulin sensitivity (reference).
- Results in greater weight and abdominal fat loss in a reduced-calorie diet over other dietary fats. Again, this study was done with MCT oil and not coconut oil. (reference)
- Weight loss efforts may be increased due to increased thermogenesis after a meal containing MCTs. Which means you have an elevated metabolic rate after consuming a meal with MCTs for increased calories burned (reference). However, no long-term studies have been done to show how this corresponds to extra pounds lost. Again, this study was done with MCT oil and not coconut oil.
What it doesn’t do:
- Raise your risk for heart disease
- Magically melt away pounds
- Cure everything from Alzheimer’s to irritable bowl disease.
My takeaway from the coconut oil research: it can be used safely in conjunction with a healthy diet. But more clinical trials need to be done using actual coconut oil and not purified MCT oil for proof of its ability to increase weight loss. Until then, all we can say is that coconut oil may offer some of the same benefits as purified MCTs since its composition contains such a high percentage of MCTs. But we can’t make any weight loss claims yet.
Even if you don’t drop 30 lbs from using it, it’s still a good choice for cooking with in conjunction with a mostly whole foods diet (aka healthy!). Coconut oil is neither a perfect superfood nor a health fraud (like most foods). I don’t recommend eating tablespoons of it straight out of the jar, or to replace all the butter in baking for that 2-a-day brownie habit, which will never be healthy. But I would recommend replacing corn or soybean oil with it when cooking. The higher smoke point of coconut oil means it will retain its health benefits even when cooking on high heat. I still use extra virgin olive oil (with a bottling date) for salads or recipes where I don’t need to heat up my food much.
Give coconut oil a try and tell me what you think!