Coconut oil: you can’t browse social media (or grocery store shelves) without coming across it, or 15 new miracle uses for it all over your body. As far as eating it, though – is coconut oil healthy? Does it have research to back up all the hype? I’ve got your top five coconut oil questions answered!
Is coconut oil heart healthy?
Most of coconut oil’s heart health claims are based on its high content of medium-chain fatty acids. Basically, fats are classified by how long their carbon chain is, and how many double bonds that molecular structure has. Short and medium chain fatty acids and triglycerides (MCFAs/MCTs) are more easily absorbed than saturated long chain fatty acids and triglycerides (LCFAs/LCTs) – found in meat, butter, and dairy fat – since they are more water soluble. This also means that they can be transported directly to the liver, whereas LCFAs need to first be broken down and take a more roundabout way to the liver for oxidation – giving them more opportunities to be deposited around the body. Most of the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a MCFA, rather than LCFA, as the majority of animal-based saturated fats are. Hence the idea that even though coconut oil has saturated fat, it’s healthier saturated fat. However, lauric acid is on the longer end of the MCTs (lauric acid has a 12 carbon chain, the unofficial definition of “medium-chain” is 6 to 12 carbon chain) and therefore might not even differ from LCFAs that much.
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There’s also no conclusive evidence that consuming coconut oil significantly improves heart health. Some studies suggest that coconut oil consumption increases HDL cholesterol without an increase in triglycerides or LDL cholesterol – which is great news. Others suggest that coconut oil consumption increases total and LDL cholesterol, and would be better off replaced by unsaturated fats.
All in all – there’s not enough evidence to show that coconut oil is a cure-all for heart health. The MCFAs might provide some benefit – but they also might not be quite short-chained enough to reap the benefits. Depending on which study you look at, coconut oil might raise your good cholesterol (HDL) without backlash, but it might also raise your bad cholesterol (LDL). What do we know for sure, though? Unsaturated fats, like those found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, and avocado are consistently proven to be superstars for your heart.
photo credit: CogniTunes via Flickr
Does coconut oil promote weight loss?
Coconut oil is slightly lower in calories than other fats, since MCFAs have 8.3 calories per gram, as opposed to 9 calories per gram in LCFAs. But it still rolls in at 115 calories per tablespoon, as opposed to 120 calories in most other oils, so it’s definitely not a game changer in terms of saving calories.
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More interestingly, though, MCFAs require more energy expenditure to metabolize than LCFAs. That means your body burns more calories while using up MCFAs, a good thing for weight loss! The downside? Studies showing this have only been tested with MCT oil – which doesn’t include lauric acid, the main MCFA in coconut oil, and only include shorter MCFAs. So – it’s unclear whether or not coconut oil would produce these results as well.
Consuming more MCFAs/MCTs shows some promise in improving weight loss – but the MCTs in coconut oil aren’t the ones being studied for weight loss effects, leaving us with no solid evidence that coconut oil has a significant impact on weight loss.
photo credit: Meal Makeover Moms via Flickr
Does coconut oil help control diabetes?
To sum this one up: hardly any human studies have been performed to test coconut oil’s effect (or lauric acid’s effect) on insulin sensitivity or diabetes, so we don’t know. A study of mice showed that both MCFAs and unsaturated LCFAs improved insulin secretion, while a study of rats showed that MCFAs may be less detrimental to insulin sensitivity than other saturated fats, but there’s no comparison there to unsaturated fats. It’s a possibility that MCFAs may work differently than saturated LCFAs regarding diabetes, but there’s not direct evidence related to coconut oil or even humans.
Should I switch from other oils to coconut oil?
If you’re looking for a heart-healthier oil, a weight loss solution, or a diabetic cure – probably not. If you enjoy the flavor of coconut oil, adding some into your diet here and there won’t hurt, but I wouldn’t toss the olive oil from your cupboard just yet. Another factor to consider when choosing an oil for cooking is its smoke point – the point at which it oxidizes and could produce an off flavor. Coconut oil has a fairly low smoke point compared to other oils, so it’s not suitable for high heat cooking. Your best bet for high heat cooking like stir-frying is an oil with a high smoke point, like avocado oil or light olive oil.
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Is coconut oil worth the hype?
While there’s an increasing body of research looking at MCFAs and their possible health benefits, current research on MCFAs and MCT oil can’t be applies to coconut oil. I’d say the hype surrounding health benefits of coconut oil is premature and likely exaggerated Personally, I won’t be running to the store for a big tub of coconut oil unless I’m using it in a specific recipe where I want its tropical flavor – like in my Coconut Lime Roasted Chickpeas and Thai Shrimp Soup with Lemongrass. The main oils in my house are extra virgin olive oil for its proven health benefits, and avocado oil for its higher smoke point. I advise my clients to do the same.