Many cultures have been using coconut oil for centuries, including the Tokelauans in the South Pacific whose diet is largely coconut-based. Despite their ample diet of saturated fat, studies have shown Tokelauans have almost no heart disease. Although initially the domain of health food stores, you can now find coconut oil in most mainstream grocery stores alongside olive and canola oil. Many vegans and paleo enthusiasts swear by it. (Image: East-West Center via Flickr)
Friend or Foe?
Here’s a quick re-cap of the potential benefits as well as reported harmful effects of coconut oil.
- Has therapeutic effects on brain disorders such as epilepsy and Alzheimer’s, due to high amount of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which produce ketone bodies in the blood
- Helps reduce appetite and burn more calories compared to other fats, also due to high MCT content
- Anti-bacterial and anti-fungal properties, due to its high Lauric Acid content
- Lowers total and “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and increases “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels, thereby reducing risk of heart disease
- Natural sunscreen and moisturizer, shown to block up to 20% of harmful UV rays
- Highest saturated fat content which had generally been purported by the medical community to be associated with heart disease*. Contains 91% saturated fat (by weight of total fat) compared to other vegetable oils like olive (14%), sunflower (10%) and canola (7%)
- Lauric acid has been found in some studies to increase the risk of heart disease
- High rate of heart disease in the Sri Lankan population who are significant consumers of coconut oil
- Yet other studies have shown that saturated fat impairs the anti-inflammatory effects of HDL (lowers HDL functionality)
*Note: a 2014 systematic review of of dietary studies seemed to indicate a reduced consumption of total saturated fatty acids would decrease risk of heart disease. The researchers nevertheless acknowledged the need for further research.
Coconut Oil: Verdict
There are definitely a lot of coconut oil purveyors and alternative practitioners marketing its benefits – some of which may be accurate. However, the scientific evidence seems to be divided on the association of saturated fat (in particular, medium-chain triglycerides and lauric acid) with heart disease. If you do decide to eat coconut oil, I’d suggest looking for non-hydrogenated, cold-pressed and organic if possible – and to consume in moderation! (Image: Hafiz Issadeen via Flickr)
- Wikipedia – Coconut Oil
- Huffington Post Living – Coconut Oil Benefits: 12 Facts About This Wonderful Ingredient
- The Skeptical Nutritionist – Coconut oil: health or hype?
- 7 Health Benefits of Coconut Oil According to Science (and 4 Delicious Recipes)
(Feature image: Meal Makeover Moms via Flickr)