Coconut Oil: Friend or Foe?

by Kaitlin Mackay

A hot topic on the market is coconut oil. Should you use it? Is it harmful or is it good for you? Ben once said to me, “I LOVE coconut oil. I would cook with it, eat it, drink it AND bathe in it if I could!” I laughed and asked him what was stopping him.
Natural coconut oil can be very good for us, but it’s also got a ton and I mean A TON of saturated fat. More than 90% of the fats found in coconut are saturated. This can be great for people who do better on higher fat consumption but it should be noted that just 1 tbs of my organic coconut oil has 12 grams of saturated fat. So yeah, drinking coconut oil would be a little excessive.

Saturated fat from natural sources (like animal meats and eggs) can and should be consumed, as part of a healthy diet. Getting some but not too much saturated fat isn’t easy, given the nation’s plentiful supply of terrible-for-you saturated fat, found in fast food, cookies, chips,…etc. But not all saturated fat is the same. Let’s talk about coconut oil and why all types of fat aren’t created equal.

Coconut oil consumption has been a controversial topic, due to contradictory information regarding: the how, when, where, why, or what of the relationship between fat consumption and health. When coconut oil first came on the market, consumers were scared away when the media announced studies showing its saturated fat content had terrible consequences on health. These studies were conducted using hydrogenated coconut oil, not natural coconut oil. So the hydrogenation process altered the fats in coconut oil and they functioned like the fats in potato chips, essentially creating what we know today as Transfats. And I think we can all agree on the relationship between potato chips and health. The media failed to mention the oil’s healthful properties had been changed, of course.

So, back to natural coconut oil. Some recommend not consuming it, due to its high saturated fat content and harmful effects on health, while some say coconut oil is beneficial for you. To do justice to the topic, I’ll share some relevant research and let you decide.

A review of literature on the relationship between coconut oil and heart disease and can be found here. The authors concluded supplementing coconut oil for other cooking oils and saturated fats in the diet, at worst, had neutral effects on health and most often was found to have positive effects on health in terms of lipid profile.

● Studies have examined populations living in the Pacific Islands and Asia who consume coconut and coconut oil as a staple of their diet. Up to 60% of their caloric intake is from saturated fat, mostly from coconut. These populations, despite their saturated fat intake, are free from the degenerative diseases that we see most often here in the US like cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis, and cancer. Further research on the effects of high fat diets and overall health can be found here.

● A study investigated the effects coconut oil vs. soy bean oil on women with abdominal obesity. After 12 weeks of coconut oil supplementation, there were no negative effects to the coconut oil supplementation group’s lipid profile. In addition, compared to the group supplementing soy bean oil, those who supplemented coconut oil had increased HDL (the “good” cholesterol) and lower LDL:HDL ratios. Additionally, those in the coconut oil group shed belly fat and their waist circumference decreased. In contrast, there was increase in the other group’s (soy oil) waist circumference. The study’s authors attributed this to the medium-chained triglycerides (MCTs) in coconut oil, reasoning the body prefers to use them as an energy source instead of fat storage.

So we know coconut oil’s saturated fat content is way high, benefits have been reported by research, and something about medium-chained triglycerides? MCTs! The fatty acids found in coconut oil’s saturated fat are fantastic. Because of their properties and functions, they are rather valuable.

Why the saturated fat in coconut is not to fear:
1. made of medium-chained triglycerides (MCTs)
● found in very few other foods compared to long-chained trigycerides (LCTs), the most abundant fat in nature
● easier to metabolize: broken down and absorbed quicker than LCTs
● our body uses these guys as energy rather than store them as fat (newsflash: LCTs are the form of storage fat in our body)
2. in MCTs we find lauric acid (a superhero fat with many special powers)
● antioxidant- can help with nutrient absorption
● antiviral- can inactivate many pathogenic viruses (can help fight measles and even HIV)
● antibiotic- can kill tons of bacteria and can help serious conditions like pneumonia, food poisoning, STIs, and stomach ulcers
● antibacterial- kills harmful bacteria in the gut but doesn’t hurt the healthy gut bacteria we need in there

Clearly so many fantastic functions of lauric acid. Why not incorporate it into your diet!

Remember, consuming coconut oil can benefit your health in many ways, but don’t get too carried away; fat is still fat, and in excess it can inhibit your attempts at fat loss. So swap out your canola and olive oil for coconut oil! It can be used for all kinds of cooking and even in baking. You won’t notice a difference in taste, but your body will be healthier and happier.

Assunca̧ o, M. L.; Ferreira, H. S.; Santos, A. F.; Cabral, C. R. Jr; ̃ Florencio, T. M. M. T. Effects of dietary coconut oil on the ̂ biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity. Lipids 2009, 44, 593−601

Bowden, Johnny. The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth: The Surprising, Unbiased Truth About What You Should Eat and Why. Fair Winds Press, 2007.

Che Man, Y. B., & Marina, A. M. (2006). Medium chain triacylglycerol. In F. Shahidi (Ed.), Nutraceutical and specialty lipids and their coproducts (pp. 27e56). Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis Group.

Enig, M.G. “Health and nutritional benefits from coconut oil: an important functional food for the 21st century.” Presented at the AVOC Lauric Oils Symposium, Ho Chi Min City, Vietnam, April 25, 1996