Setting the Record Straight on Coconut Oil's Health Benefits

In the past few years there have been many unfounded claims about coconut oil spreading around the internet and social media. Many people believe that coconut oil has special health benefits even though research has not supported these claims. Let’s take a look at the facts and set the record straight! 

Heart Health

Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat which is the unhealthy fat we get from high-fat animal foods. In fact, coconut oil has more saturated fat than many animal products. For example, butter is 63% saturated fat and lard is 39% saturated fat. Evidence shows that solid fats—including coconut oil—raise blood cholesterol levels which may, in turn, increase the risk for fatty deposits on blood vessel walls and heart attacks. Additionally, a new meta-analysis of 17 clinical trials published in January 2020’s edition of the American Heart Association’s circulation reported that coconut oil significantly raised total cholesterol and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels more when compared to non-tropical vegetable oils.

Many of the purported coconut oil health benefits touted online include the oil’s medium-chain triglycerides, also known at MCTs. These medium-length chains of fatty acids are thought to potentially have less impact on heart disease. However, coconut oil actually contains more long-chain triglycerides than medium which are thought to be more likely to increase heart health risks.

Weight Loss and Increased Metabolism

MCTs are also thought to be burned quicker by the body than long-chain fatty acids which leads to claims for weight loss and faster metabolism with coconut oil use. However, studies that have shown this association did not use coconut oil, but used 100% MCT oil. Remember, that coconut oil has more long-chain triglycerides than medium. Coconut oil actually has less than 20% MCTs. These studies also contained a very small number of participants who also increased their exercise and ate fewer calories. It is unclear if it was the MCT oil that lead to their weight loss or their other lifestyle changes. At about 240 calories per 2 tablespoons, calories from coconut oil can add up quickly which may not help with weight loss efforts if total calories are not controlled.

Diabetes and Alzheimer’s Disease

There are claims that coconut oil can help with controlling diabetes and even reverse Alzheimer’s disease. Currently there is limited evidence supporting the value of coconut oil in these conditions. Animal studies have suggested benefits in diabetes but animal studies may not be applicable to humans. If you have diabetes, it is recommended to treat coconut oil like any other saturated fat and use it sparingly.

So, coconut oil is not the wonder food we may have heard in the past, but do we need to cut it out completely? The American Heart Association recommends consuming 5 to 6% of calories from saturated fat and the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend less than 10%. It is encouraged to replace saturated fats with unsaturated fatty acids such as those found in plant-based oils. An easy way to differentiate a healthier unsaturated oil with a more artery clogging saturated fat is if the oil is liquid or solid at room temperature. Saturated fats like coconut oil are solid at room temperature, whereas unsaturated fats like olive oil are liquid at room temperature.

If you enjoy coconut oil and don’t want to cut it out, it would be advised to keep the portions small and replace it with an unsaturated fat such as olive oil, avocado oil, chia oil, or canola oil where you can. Be careful with the “health halo” that surrounds coconut oil. Just because a recipe replaces butter with coconut oil does not make it healthy. And remember, just because you read something online doesn’t make it true.

More research is needed on potential coconut oil health benefits. But what we do know from numerous studies is that unsaturated fat from plant-based oils (rather than the saturated fat in coconut oil) can help to lower your risk for heart disease and may be better for overall health.

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