For years, coconut oil was considered a diet “don’t.” One of the only plant sources of saturated fat, a fat form linked with heart disease, diabetes and obesity, it was seldom found on any superfoods lists. Now it seems to be everywhere, including on health-food fans’ lists of favorites. Coconut oil has been touted to help with weight control, boosting immunity and even fighting Alzheimer’s disease. Read on to learn more about the tropical oil, the science-based truth behind its benefits and how to healthfully incorporate it into your diet.
Coconut’s Anatomy 101
The stringy outside is only one unique trait of coconuts. Also known as the “tree of life,” every part of the coconut is used. They produce milk, fiber and food and are even used as a dish from which to sip. Like other fruits in what’s known as the drupe family (includes cherries, peaches and plums), coconuts have three layers, including the hard exterior, the fleshy white fruit part you eat and, inside, a seed. Coconut oil is extracted from the fruit layer.
Fat Content and Controversy
Because about 90 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, a higher percentage than beef or butter, it has long been considered unhealthy. Different types of saturated fat exist, though, and not all of the kind in coconut oil negatively affects cholesterol health. Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides and the body metabolizes these fats differently than longer triglycerides. The majority of the available science on coconut oil was conducted using MCTs, however there are other types of fats in the oil to consider. The main fat in coconut oil (lauric acid) raises HDL, or “good,” cholesterol levels. But while these differences have led some wellness advocates to anoint coconut oil a near miracle food, many medical and dietary experts feel differently. Lauric acid also raises LDL, or “bad” cholesterol and the implications of this aren't fully understood.
The research that has explored the effects of coconut oil on weight control has developed mixed results. The thought behind coconut oil and it’s relationship with weight loss lies primarily in medium-chain triglycerides -- a type of fat found in coconuts and one that is metabolized more efficiently by the body -- making it more likely to be burned as fuel. In a 2010 study published in Physiology & Behavior, men ate a breakfast containing fat in the form of coconut oil, dairy or beef tallow. No significant differences were found in their appetite or food intake afterwards. In another study, overweight women and men ate calorie-controlled diets containing medium-chain fatty acids -- the kind in coconut oil -- or equal amounts of calories from olive oil for four months. Participants who ate the MCT oil lost about four pounds more, or about one more pound per month, than the olive oil group. Currently, the scientific evidence in favor of coconut oil and weight loss is not sufficient.
Children With Epilepsy
One reason behind the claim that coconut oil may benefit people with Alzheimer’s disease is the fact that it has helped some children with epilepsy as part of a ketogenic diet. The diet works by severely limiting carbohydrates, forcing the body and brain to use fat as its main energy source -- which has shown to help control seizures. Coconut oil is used to make the diet easier to follow. It allows a slight increase in carb intake while keeping the child in a state of ketosis.
Antibacterial and Immunity
Coconut oil contains lauric acid and caprylic acid, which may boost immunity by lowering levels of harmful bacteria in the body. While research is limited, a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food in June 2007 showed that coconut oil effectively minimized samples of the yeast-like bacteria candida in a lab. This is important because more than 20 species of candida can cause infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, causing bothersome symptoms in your mouth, skin or vagina -- commonly called a yeast infection.
Alzheimer’s Disease Claims have been made that coconut oil can help treat or even cure Alzheimer’s disease. This idea is based on the theory that nerve cells in the brains of people with the disease aren’t able to properly produce energy from glucose, which basically starves the brain. Some have theorized that coconut oil may serve as an alternate energy source, leading to fewer symptoms -- but research is lacking. Some evidence suggests that fats like coconut oil could indirectly harm people with Alzheimer’s by increasing a type of protein that’s already elevated in people with the disease. There is a clinical trial currently underway to further research this association, and results are due out in 2017.
Should You Go for It? Most dietitians and medical experts agree that while coconut oil may provide benefits, it’s not necessarily a superfood. More research is needed to determine the validity of these claims. While emerging research has shown that the oil isn’t as lethal as once believed and that it may bring benefits, it’s also not “miraculous.”
“There’s no strong data or evidence that coconut oil is better or worse for you than any other source of saturated fat,” said Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy at Tufts University in a 2014 interview with Today’s Dietitian. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t eat it, however -- especially if you enjoy the flavor.
Coconut oil also provides a vegetarian and nondairy alternative to animal fats, such as butter, making it helpful for people who eat plant-based diets or who don’t tolerate dairy products. Like other saturated fat sources, coconut oil fits within a healthy diet in moderation.
Choosing the Best Coconut Oil
If you want to incorporate coconut oil into your diet, choose an unrefined variety, suggests Jennifer Cassetta, a clinical nutritionist in Los Angeles. “Unrefined coconut oil is best if you want the fullest flavor of coconut and in it’s purest form,” says Cassetta. Refined coconut oil goes through a bleaching process, making it less pure, although it has a higher smoke point, making it safer for sauteing or baking at higher temperatures. Unrefined coconut oil also contains more phytonutrients, or natural plant chemicals that promote overall wellness.
Cooking and Baking Tips
Use coconut for a hint of tropical flavor when sauteing veggies or your favorite stir-fry. “I love its versatility,” said Stephanie Dreyer, vegan cooking expert and founder of VeegMama. “It’s lighter and adds a delicious flavor to vegetables,” adds Dreyer. Spread coconut oil over breakfast goodies, such as whole-grain French toast, pancakes and waffles. Because unrefined coconut oil has a lower smoke point, use low to medium or medium-high heat on your stovetop to prevent burning. When baking, coconut oil is a smart replacement for shortening and hard margarine because it doesn’t contain chemically made trans fats, which are considered the most risky fat form for heart health. To substitute butter or margarine with coconut oil in your favorite recipes, simply use the same amount of coconut oil.
What Do YOU Think?
Do you use coconut oil? What type of results have you had? What’s your favorite way to use coconut oil? Let us know by leaving a comment!
- Library of Congress: Is Coconut a Fruit, Nut or Seed?
- Am J Clin Nutr. 2008 Mar;87(3):621-6. Weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weightand fat mass loss than does olive oil. St-Onge MP1, Bosarge A.
- Center for Science in the Public Interest
- Physiology & Behavior; Fatty Acid Chain Length, Postprandial Satiety and Food Intake in Lean Men
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: All About Oils
- USDA: Phytonutrient FAQ
- American Heart Association: Know Your Fats
- Alzheimer’s Society: Science behind the headlines: How to reduce your risk and other popular topics
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: High-Fat Ketogenic Diet to Control Seizures Is Safe Over Long Term
- Today’s Dietitian; Saturated Fat: Not So Bad or Just Bad Science?