Coconut Oil as a Health Food: Solid Science or Just Nuts?

Dr. Christopher McGowan
September 18, 2020

In the pantheon of sanctified, near-magical healthy food, coconut oil has claimed a hallowed spot in recent years. With supposed benefits for everything from cholesterol levels to Alzheimer’s disease prevention, and even pulling duty as a natural moisturizer for hair and skin, it would seem coconut oil is an unparalleled nectar of life. 

Keen observers, though, will notice something odd about these claims. Coconut oil is largely made of saturated fats. The balance of medical and dietary advice in recent years has centered on avoiding saturated fats due to their potentially harmful influence in raising your likelihood of heart disease. So, how can a miraculous super-food be made of the same kind of fat that is allegedly bad for us? Read on to find out just how devilish the details can be about the benefits and potential risks of coconut oil.

Is Coconut Oil a Superfood?

There is no doubt coconut oil is included in some of the healthiest diets on earth. Many tropical diets from around the globe include large amounts of coconut, and many of these native diets are eaten by people with some of the lower historical rates of heart disease you can find. 

Coconut oil’s rise to dietary stardom in the Western diet was largely based on research that seemed to show startling results for people who used coconut oil instead of other fats like olive oil or butter in cooking. These results seemed so promising that people began deliberately adding coconut oil to their diets as more than just a flavoring or a cooking oil. The problem is, research has come to light that suggests this may not provide the health benefits you are looking for. 

As is often the case with foods that become suddenly popular, dietary fads drive all sorts of claims to the forefront. Some of these come from well-controlled, high-quality studies, and other claims have perhaps less rigorous origins. What is most interesting is that for many of the claims of the benefits of coconut oil, there is a study purporting to prove exactly the opposite. 

The answer to whether coconut oil is actually good for you, or whether the benefits outweigh any potential downsides, comes down to what kind of coconut oil you are dealing with.

How is Coconut Oil Made?

Coconut oil is extracted by pressing the white meat of fresh or dried coconuts. Virgin coconut oil is pressed from fresh coconuts, and is generally considered to be healthier. Refined coconut oil is made from dried coconut meat, called copra, and requires extra processing steps to produce the final oil. One advantage to refined coconut oil is the higher smoke point, allowing it to be used in different types of cooking. 

The main categories of coconut oil are virgin coconut oil and refined coconut oil. Unlike olive oil, there is no official governing body that regulates the terminology regarding coconut oil, so virgin and extra virgin coconut oil are essentially the same thing. 

Though it may be healthier in its natural form, coconut oil can also be processed in unhealthy ways. In an attempt to give it a longer shelf life, refined coconut oil will sometimes be partially hydrogenated, which converts some of the oil into trans-fats. Trans-fats are widely regarded as being very unhealthy for you, and should be avoided if at all possible. 

To understand whether coconut oil is any good for you, we need to step back and take a closer look at fat. Different kinds of fats have different effects on the body, particularly in regards to your levels of LDL and HDL cholesterol. Unsaturated fats are generally considered the healthy fats, saturated fats are somewhere in the middle from a health benefit standpoint, and trans-fats are on the other end of the spectrum in downright unhealthy territory. 

Is Coconut Oil Good for Your Heart?

Coconut oil is made up largely of more than 80% saturated fats, the majority of which is lauric acid. Coconut oil remains solid at room temperature, and has a higher smoke point when cooking as a result of the high levels of saturated fats it contains. In this way, it is different from other vegetable oils such as olive oil or avocado oil. 

The favorable disposition many armchair dietitians have toward coconut oil is largely based on studies of a particular formulation of the oil that is rich in medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. This is not precisely the formulation you are typically going to find if you go looking for virgin coconut oil on the grocery store shelf. 

Some products that are specially formulated to be high in MCT oil do exist, but they are different from your run-of-the-mill coconut oil. The good news is, the fat in coconut oil is still made up largely of these MCTs, even if it isn’t exactly the formula that has been used in some research. These medium chain fatty acids are processed quickly by your liver, and some believe this means they are burned more efficiently rather than being stored as fat. 

A large portion of the health claims supporting coconut oil are based on its potential effects on cholesterol levels. Analysis has suggested that eating coconut oil can increase your levels of HDL cholesterol, which helps fight the formation of plaque in your arteries. The problem is, some studies have shown that saturated fats like those found in coconut oil also raise LDL levels, which contributes to the formation of arterial plaque in the first place.

Why is Coconut Oil Bad for You?

There is no way around it—saturated fats are shown to raise your cholesterol, especially the bad LDL cholesterol. Coconut oil is made primarily of saturated fats, and while it may have other health benefits, consuming too much saturated fat can increase your risk of heart disease. In fact, some studies put it on par with beef fat or palm oil in this regard.

However good MCT-rich coconut oil may be for increasing your HDL cholesterol, evidence suggests that saturated fats are not heart healthy since they contribute to increases in your overall cholesterol. As a result, the American Heart Association recommends no more than 13 grams of saturated fat a day. This is about the amount found in one tablespoon of coconut oil. 

Many nutritionists are more cautious about touting the health benefits of coconut oil. Rather than proclaiming it an outright health food, dietitians and nutritionists take a broader look at your overall health to evaluate how much exercise you are getting, your weight loss goals, any heart disease risk, and how dietary fats might fit into this overall picture. From this standpoint, lowering your overall levels of dietary fats will usually be a priority.

The Bottom Line on Coconut Oil

How you use coconut oil in your diet is going to determine how healthy it is for you. There is no silver bullet for weight loss or heart health, and while a teaspoon of coconut oil thrown in to your overall diet here and there can be healthy, managing your overall intake of dietary fats is going to do more for you than simply loading up on medium chain fatty acids and hoping that will start melting the pounds away. 

Managing fat intake for weight loss is a complex process that involves understanding your body, managing your intake of carbs and sugars, and being careful about your level of exercise. There are few instances where you would throw back spoonfuls of butter in an attempt to lose belly fat, and coconut oil should generally be treated in a similar manner.  

Like so many other health claims, people who are too quick to tout the benefits of coconut oil may be missing the full picture of how fats affect the body. Staying heart healthy, especially if you have been identified as having a higher risk of heart disease, is important. Trying to lose weight simply by introducing medium chain fatty acids will introduce more calories into your diet and could negatively affect your cholesterol.

From fad dieting to poor exercise plans to the claims of miracle foods that will melt fat, the world is full of easy solutions that mask the hard truth—finding the freedom of achieving a weight you can live with well is hard. 

At True You Weight Loss, we know how confusing it can be to meet your weight loss objectives. That is part of why we do more than perform weight loss procedures—we will work with you to understand how your current diet, activity levels, and lifestyle choices are affecting your body weight, as well as helping you make and execute a plan that will achieve the healthiest results possible for your body. For some this may involve the important step of a weight loss procedure such as an ESG (Endoscopic Sleeve Gastroplasty). For others, it may mean the ongoing work of Medical Nutrition Therapy.

If you have tried losing weight before without success, sometimes all that is missing is having someone in your corner to help you along the way. Request a consultation today to learn more about how True You Weight Loss can help you find the freedom you have been looking for.

Dr. Christopher McGowan
Dr. Christopher McGowan
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