Coconut oil is everywhere these days and touting all kinds of health benefits—from supporting weight loss to slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Previously shunned by the nutrition world for its high saturated fat content, coconut oil has shown a huge increase in sales and has taken the media by storm in recent years.
When restaurants started removing trans fats, alternative oils began gaining popularity, including coconut oil. Consumers are looking for “superfoods” and coconut is the popular one at the moment. But are these products as nutritious as they believe? According to a 2016 survey published in The New York Times, 72 percent of Americans think coconut oil is healthful—but only 37 percent of nutrition experts surveyed agree. So, is it time to make coconut oil a staple in your diet? Not so fast. Let’s look at what the science says.
Coconut oil is about 90 percent saturated fat, which is a higher percentage than butter (64 percent saturated fat) or even beef fat (40 percent saturated fat). Too much saturated fat in the diet is unhealthy because it raises “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, which increases the risk of heart disease.
Most of the health benefits attributed to coconut oil are associated with its high content of medium chain fatty acids (MCFA’s) which are a type of saturated fat. What’s interesting about coconut oil is that it has been shown to give “good” HDL cholesterol a boost. About 50 percent of the MCFA’s in coconut oil are called lauric acid. That is a higher percentage than in most other oils, and is probably responsible for the unusual HDL effects of coconut oil. Most of the research so far has consisted of short-term studies to examine its effect on cholesterol levels. There is no conclusive proof that coconut oil consistently acts differently from other saturated fats. In fact, a 2016 review of literature on coconut consumption in humans found that coconut consumption can raise HDL cholesterol, but might also raise LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and triglycerides—all cardiovascular disease risk factors.
There are several other claims of coconut oil, including its ability to promote weight loss, prevent and treat diabetes, and reduce mental losses from Alzheimer’s. Although many people have heard that coconut oil can help with weight loss, there is no solid evidence at this time to recommend coconut oil as a weight loss aid. Because of the MCFA content of coconut oil, your body may process them slightly different than other dietary fats. However, coconut is high in calories. You can’t just add it to your diet without cutting back calories elsewhere and expect to lose weight. A literature search turned up no human studies on effects of coconut oil on insulin sensitivity or diabetes. The American Diabetes Association considers coconut oil a saturated fat to be limited. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, there has never been any clinical testing and no scientific evidence suggesting it helps.
For now, I’d use coconut oil sparingly. There are many studies that demonstrate that unsaturated fatty acids (e.g. olive oil, avocado, and nuts) are better choices as these fats lower both LDL and increase HDL cholesterol levels. It’s certainly not necessary to avoid all coconut products and they can add a wonderful flavor profile in many different cuisines, but I would not use coconut oil as your primary oil. My favorite oil remains olive oil as the amount of research behind the healthy heart properties is substantially greater than that available for coconut oil. It’s fine to add small amounts of coconut oil to your diet, but keep the focus on healthier fat sources along with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins.
-- Laura Quinn, RDN, Burke Rehabilitation Hospital