Coconut Oil: Is It Really That Good for You?

Diets

Coconut oil has exploded onto the market in the past decade, being touted as a revolutionary health food but its benefits go way beyond the culinary – it can also be beneficial for skin, hair, and nails.

Although there are good reasons for the popularity of coconut oil, the problem is that there is a great deal of controversy about the health benefits: there is a serious discussion occurring about whether or not coconut oil is “good for you” and what effects it might have on the body.

In this article, you’ll receive an in-depth look at coconut oil including where it comes from and what kind of nutrients it contains. You’ll receive an outline of the arguments for and against coconut oil, giving you all the information you need to make your own decision when it comes to answering the question, “Is coconut oil good for you?” Keep reading to learn more!

The History of Coconut Oil

Cultures that consume a lot of coconut-products tend to be far healthier than those who eat lots of processed fats – this is the main reason why coconut oil has been re-introduced to the public as a health food. The cultures that regularly consume coconut have a lower risk of heart disease and  obesity as well as better body composition.

This correlation alone is enough to support the claim that coconut oil is beneficial, but you must consider that there are other dietary differences between the cultures mentioned. Coconut oil is not the same as coconuts, and those cultures that consume more coconut fats tended to eat whole coconuts like coconut milk as well as other plant foods and fish.

It should be obvious that no food is healthy by itself, but only in the context of a whole diet. The fact that cultures who eat a lot of coconuts and have great health is no evidence that coconuts are healthy:  there are cultures that eat lots of butter and have great health, but this is not to suggest that butter is healthy. We need to look at the whole diet for context, individual foods do not explain cultural differences or health trends.

Is Coconut Oil Good For You or Bad For You?

In order to answer this question, we need to look at the saturated fat in coconut oil. The coconut oil found in most stores is around 90% saturated fat, by weight. If you’ve heard of saturated fat before, it’s probably in relation to the negative health effects that have been associated with excessive consumption of this form of fat. Saturated fat research has seriously over-simplified the issue until recently, but saturated fats are mostly a problem because they are considered to be a risk to heart health.

When compared with unsaturated fats, they have been known to increase the risk of heart disease and other cardiovascular problems. The problem is that coconut oil is being used as a replacement for olive oil and other polyunsaturated cooking oils, which is exactly what you should be avoiding!  

Saturated fats have been linked to the increase of LDL in the blood – the form of cholesterol that used to be thought of as ‘bad’ cholesterol. This is a significant risk factor for heart disease and other cardiovascular problems, so an increase in LDL from coconut oil would be a genuine health concern.

Whether there is variability between the different forms of saturated fat or not, it is beyond debate that this is a huge concentration of saturated fat. Clearly, there is some serious justification for concerns about coconut oil: if somebody told you that butter or bacon were health foods, you would be justified in your scepticism.

The Coconut Oil Controversy: What Kind of Saturated Fats?

Some articles have made claims that coconut oil is still healthy in spite of its saturated fat profile because these saturated fats are mostly medium-chain triglycerides, or because it only increases one type of cholesterol in the blood (supposedly the healthy kind of LDL). The crux of the argument is that small, dense LDL are healthier than large, ‘fluffy’ LDL, with the former being healthier and the latter being dangerous and causing heart problems.

However, the science says that both of these forms can be dangerous to health, with the number of LDL particles being a greater indicator of risk than the type of particle. Additionally, the types of fats that preferentially improve smaller LDL particles (myristic and palmitic) are a minority in coconut oil and may not be well-absorbed by the body, making them an incredibly small part of the overall effect of coconut oil. Saying that coconut oil is healthy because of these fats is like suggesting your double cheeseburger is healthy because it has lettuce on it.

The Coconut Oil Controversy: Medium-Chain Triglycerides

Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) are a form of medium-length fatty acid chains, found in high concentrations in coconut oil, which have been claimed to reduce obesity and improve various health markers by some, less-credible sources. These are perhaps the “best” form of saturated fats and definitely have some positive health effects.

Saturated fat research in the 20th century treated ‘saturated fats’ as a single, identifiable type of fat. In reality, ‘saturated fat’ is an umbrella term for a group of fats which have unique and widely-varied health effects. The saturated fat in bacon is less concentrated than in coconut oil, but it is also a worse form of saturated fat and is highly-processed. The overall profile of the two fats are totally different in the same way that there are healthy unsaturated fats (Omega-3) and others which can be harmful to health (Omega-6). Classing all the saturated fats together overlooks the individual differences and we cannot generalise that all saturated fats are ‘bad’.

The contribution of MCTs to coconut oil’s fat profile cannot be overlooked, especially since evidence suggests that these are the most beneficial saturated fats to consume [4]. We know that MCTs are the most nutritionally-valuable of all saturated fats, so to suggest that the inclusion of saturated fats makes coconut oil unhealthy would be ignorant of the evidence.

Finally, there is a serious concern with the research that props up the myth that all saturated fats are bad. These tests require participants to eat the same amount of calories for control, usually using unsaturated fats to make up the difference, which effects the validity of results because these are known to improve heart health. The research suggests that saturated fats are bad, when in reality they’re just being replaced by healthier fats.

Medium-Chain Triglycerides: Are All the Claims True?

The first thing we need to point out is that medium-chain triglycerides will not combat obesity. They are a slightly healthier choice than either short- or long-chain saturated fats and should be considered part of a healthy diet rather than a replacement for all other forms of fat. They will not significantly increase your metabolic rate or cause you to lose weight, but they have some evidence to suggest that they can assist a calorie-deficit diet.

It isn’t a controversial statement to say that coconut oil isn’t ‘unhealthy’ – this is supported by the initial research on the MCTs in coconut oil, but what we are really concerned with is how healthy coconut oil is compared to other common oils such as olive oil. Whether or not MCTs are the best form of saturated fat, the research all points to the superiority of unsaturated fats in the prevention of heart problems and the effects on cholesterol.

The main source of contention is the effects of MCTs on cholesterol and other fats found in the blood. Despite the hype around coconut oil and its MCT content, excessive intake of even medium-chain triglycerides will increase the LDL (bad cholesterol) concentration. Whilst MCTs are arguably the healthiest saturated fats, they should not be treated as if they are a miracle ‘superfood’, nor do they combat cholesterol or obesity by themselves.

Does Coconut Oil Suppress Appetite?

Some studies have suggested that MCTs can reduce appetite, with participants electing to eat fewer calories on days when they eat MCTs. There is mixed evidence on this benefit, but for many of us the positive effects of appetite suppression is worth taking this small chance, even if the effects are minimal.

However, you must consider that coconut oil is not entirely made up of MCTs and does not seem to have the same effect as pure MCT consumption. On the contrary, the research suggests that olive oil is more effective at suppressing hunger than coconut oil. There is a serious problem of health food companies marketing coconut oil as an MCT source when the concentration of MCTs in unprocessed coconut oil was estimated to be around 10-15%, and only reaches 40-50% in processed, refined coconut oil.

Lauric acid is the main MCT found in coconut oil, but this does not act in the same way as other MCTs in the body. Lauric acid is absorbed at much lower rates, so you can expect to absorb around 11g of Lauric acid from 100g of coconut oil. This amount of coconut oil would, however, be almost 500% of your daily saturated fat intake, which is definitely awful for your health.

Coconut Oil Is Not Natural or A Whole Food

We often see coconut oil being marketed as a healthy, natural alternative to processed, ‘synthetic’ fats. This is part of the general marketing plan for coconut oil, but is far from correct. The coconut oil that we find in stores is typically not a natural or unprocessed fat – it is a condensed and refined product that comes from plants. The coconut flesh is dried, pulped, filtered and bleached before it comes to your frying pan – the coconut milk or flesh are far better for health than the condensed fat.

If you’re looking for a natural fat then we recommend going for the virgin form of coconut oil, though this has less of the health-promoting fats that it is now famous for. It seems that the choice between a natural, unprocessed coconut oil and one that is healthy suggests that ‘natural’ products are not always the best for your health. Remember, cholera is totally natural, but that doesn’t mean that it’s good for you!

The Benefits of Cooking With Coconut Oil Are Short-Term

Coconut oil has been proven to have a fractional effect on lipolysis, the process of fat metabolism. However, the benefits level off after around 2 weeks, before the body accommodates the change in fat intake. For example, if you were to change your cooking oil from vegetable to coconut oil, you’d find that your health would improve for the first two weeks but there would be no noticeable benefits after this period.

Summary: Is Coconut Oil Good for You?

In the end, you can make your own decision about coconut oil and there is nothing wrong with maintaining a healthy dose of scepticism. While there are some beneficial compounds to be found, it is possible that some of the health claims surrounding this oil are a bit exaggerated. The reality is that coconut oil is a good form of fat, but maybe not the best – nor is it a miraculous health food. We can reliably say that coconut oil is better for you than butter (or other forms of saturated fat) but may not be quite as good for you as olive oil.

Generally speaking, coconut oil is good for you in the right context.

As was mentioned above, a single food is neither healthy nor unhealthy outside the context of a complete diet. Coconut oil can be a great addition to your diet if you use it to replace lower-quality saturated fats and if you make sure to eat moderate quantities. Replacing all unsaturated fats with coconut oil is probably going to be negative for your heart health, but the unique taste and texture make it a great replacement for butter and other animal fats.

Actionable Steps: Tips for Using Coconut Oil Properly

  1. Take a quick look at your diet and identify the different forms of fat you tend to consume most often – what is the ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats?
  2. Consider ways that you might try replacing unhealthy saturated fats with coconut oil – this is usually easiest to do with baking as you can replace butter or margarine with coconut oil.
  3. Try not to overuse coconut oil when cooking – when it comes to frying and sautéing foods, olive oil is generally the better option.
  4. Monitor and moderate your fat intake on the whole and strive for a balance of healthy fats including omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids as well as short- and medium-chain triglycerides.
cooking with coconut oil title card

If you love coconut oil, either for the taste or because you want to include more MCTs in your diet, you can certainly feel good about adding it to your nutrition routine. However, it is important to measure the content in your diet and restrict it to a fraction of your fat intake. Coconut oil is neither the high-saturated-fat devil it was suggested in the 1960s, nor is it the solution to all medical problems as it has been suggested in recent times, but a good saturated fat and a middling source of fats overall.

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