Is coconut oil good or bad for you?

 

Last month, the American Heart Association released new guidelines about fat intake. While there was lots of information in the 26 page document, the media went crazy about one thing: coconut oil. Even though the information about coconut made up only one half-page of content in the guide, reporters from around the globe pounced on this sentence:

“…because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of cardiovascular disease, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”

Pretty bold. Coconut oil and all coconut products have been heavily marketed as health foods, so consumer were left confused. So is coconut oil healthy…or not?

Consumer perception

Touted as a weight loss aid, and a natural defence against Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, arthritis and cancer, the benefits of coconut oil are heavily marketed, and wildly exaggerated. But consumers think it’s a true wonder food. A survey published in the New York Times reported that 72 percent of the American public rated coconut oil as a “healthy food.” Interestingly, only 37 percent of nutritionists rated it as a healthy food. Nutrition professionals clearly aren’t as convinced of coconut oil’s superfood status, since we study the scientific evidence instead of relying on the sensationalized headlines.

What’s the evidence?

Beginning in 2008, studies started to emerge showing a link between weight loss and medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of very small fat molecule found in some oils. While the study findings remain promising, what got mixed up was the type of oils that contain high amounts of MCTs. Real MCT oil is a purified product, and contains 100 percent MCT. Coconut was touted as a weight loss panacea for its MCT content, but it actually contains a low amount of MCT! The studies on weight loss used 100 percent pure MCT oil, while coconut oil contains much less (perhaps 14 percent). Obviously the same weight loss results can’t be found with coconut oil as they can with pure MCTs.

So yes, coconut oil has some MCTs in it, but at much lower levels than people think. That means the research on the benefits of MCTs cannot be applied to coconut oil, because the fats are different in their structure, absorption and metabolism. Actual MCTs are very short-chain fats with 6, 8 or 10 carbons. Coconut oil contains just a small amount of those, while it has 70 percent saturated fatty acids with 12 carbons or more – those aren’t the fats that are linked to weight loss. Recent research on coconut oil and weight loss actually found that coconut oil made people feel hungrier than olive oil did. So much for weight loss. Strike one.

Beyond weight control, coconut oil is often promoted for heart health. But a recent systematic review that looked at seven studies comparing coconut oil with healthier monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils found that coconut oil raised LDL (bad) cholesterol in all seven trials, significantly in six of them. Of course, websites that sell coconut oil market it as a cure for high cholesterol, but the science just doesn’t agree. Strike two.

What about other oils? For cooking and prepping food, olive oil still comes out on top as your best choice. It does not have the same deleterious effect on cholesterol levels, since it is mostly heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Coconut oil is only six percent monounsaturated fat, while olive oil is 73 percent monounsaturated fat. Strike three.

What does it all mean?

So in this case, does three strikes mean that coconut oil is out? Not necessarily. In the diet, we can’t focus specifically on just one food. We have to look at the diet as a whole and think about all of the food choices that we’re making and how that affects overall health.

A study published this week in the New England Journal of Medicine has a good reminder: The best way to sustain long-term health benefits is by improving overall dietary patterns rather than by focusing on individual foods or nutrients.

There is no one superfood that is going to miraculously make you healthy. It’s the overall diet that counts. When it comes to fats, choose a variety. Stick with unsaturated oils like olive and avocado most often, but don’t be afraid to use a pat of butter with your scrambled eggs, or a tablespoon of coconut oil for a Thai or Indian dish that will benefit from the rich flavour.

 

Cara’s bookNourish: Whole Food Recipes featuring Seeds, Nut and Beans, is available on Amazon.
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Cara Rosenbloom is a registered dietician, celebrated author and international columnist, active as a food blogger, recipe developer and nutrition educator.

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