Coconut Oil Health Benefits
Coconut oil has been touted as a health panacea. Some people use it on their skin as a moisterizer, others cook with it, and some people even eat it plain by the spoonful.
List of coconut oil's purported health benefits:
- 1. Coconut Oil has antibacterial and antiviral properties.
- 2. Helps thyroid function in those with hypothyroidism.
- 3. Helps control blood sugar levels.
- 4. May help with weight loss (fat loss).
- 5. May protect your brain from aging and from Alzheimer's Disease.
- 6. Helps with the absorption of fat soluble vitamins.
- 7. Best cooking oil due to its high flash point.
But are all of these health claims true? More on this in a bit. First lets discuss coconut oil's high saturated fat content.
What About the Saturated Fat in Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil contains about 90% saturated fat, which we've all been led to believe will cause our demise by causing heart disease. However, many claim the saturated fat in coconut oil is actually healthy for you.
Hydrogenated vegetable oils (also known as trans fats) are very bad for you, but coconut is actually a heart healthy fat when used in moderation. More on this later.
Are the Health Claims About Coconut Oil True?
Coconut oil contains three saturated fatty acids (45% lauric acid, 17% myristic acid, and 8% palmitic acid). Lauric acid is the substance thought to be responsible for coconut oil's antibacterial, antiviral, and antifungal properties. Lauric acid is only found in coconut oil, palm kernal oil, human breast milk, and to a lesser degree, cow and goat's milk. Lauric acid is converted to monolauren in the body, which is the compound with the antimicrobial activiy. This claim that coconut oil is antibacterial and antiviral appears to be true.
Coconut Oil: Weight Loss and Cholesterol Levels
The research regarding coconut oil and cholesterol seems to be mixed.
One research study showed that oral supplementation with coconut oil did not raise blood cholesterol and also caused a reduction in abdominal fat as compared to soybean oil (Assunção et al. 2009). In this study they had two groups of female participants that received either coconut oil or soybean oil every day for 12 weeks. At the end of the study they found that the coconut oil group lost more abdominal fat and had lower cholesterol levels as compared to the soybean group.
One reason that coconut oil may help with fat loss is that it is comprised of short and medium chain fatty acids, whereas the fats in meat and other vegetable oils are comprised of long chain fatty acids. The short and medium chains are easier to break down and so these don't get stored, but are used instead for energy.
Coconut oil's mechanism for promoting weight loss is because you are replacing a fat with long chain fatty acids with the short and medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil. What this means is that it is more about what you are not eating than what you are eating that accounts for coconut oil's ability to promote weight loss.
Another research study by Cox et al.(1995) compared the effects of coconut oil, butter, and safflower oil and the effects of each on raising cholesterol. They found that both coconut oil and butter increased the total and LDL cholesterol (the bad type of cholesterol) more so than the safflower oil, but total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol was lower in the coconut oil group than the butter group.
Another research study by Sabitha et al. (2009) compared the effects of coconut oil and sunflower oil when they are used as cooking oil.
In this study, there were 2 groups of 70 men each. One group of men was comprised of type II diabetics, and the other group consisted of normal, healthy men. These groups were further split so that half of the diabetics and half of the healthy men cooked in coconut oil, and the other half of the men cooked in sunflower oil for 6 years. Note that coconut oil is a medium chain saturated fat, whereas sunflower oil is a polyunsaturated long chain fatty acid. So, if the saturated fat in coconut leads to heart disease and hyperlipidemia then the coconut oil groups should have higher cholesterol levels. However, there were no significant differences found between the groups.
Coconut is best for cooking because of it's high flash point. What this means is that coconut oil withstands heat better than most other cooking oils so there is less oxidative damage to the oil when it is heated.
Coconut Oil and Thyroid Function
I tried do a search for thyroid and coconut oil in research articles and came up empty. Mmmm. Not what I was expecting.
About the only thing I found was a research article stating that long chain fatty acids may disrupt thyroid function. This means that by replacing a long chain triglyceride with coconut oil's medium chain triglycerides, you could potentially improve your thyroid function. Once again, it appears to be more about what you are not eating than the coconut oil itself.
So, if you are eating coconut oil by the spoonful hoping to kick start your thyroid, I'd try something else.
Coconut oil may also alleviate some of the symptoms of low thyroid hormones by elevating metabolism, but there seems to be no real evidence that it helps your thyroid functioning directly.
Coconut Oil and Alzheimer's
There doesn't seem to be any research studies on coconut oil's affect on Alzheimer's disease and most of the reports come from anecdotal evidence, which is not to say that it doesn't work.
The research I did find on Alzheimer's and coconut oil was that medium chain triglicerides give the brain an alternative fuel source to glucose (ketones), which may account for the improvement in cognitive functioning.
Whole Coconuts vs Coconut Oil
I'm a whole foods advocate, which means that in most cases I believe eating the whole foods and not just a part of a food (such as oil from coconuts), is best. Buying and eating the entire coconut will provide more health benefits than just the oil.
However, at least where I live, you can't always find fresh coconuts. Not only that, it isn't that easy to open them up if you do find them. However, I truly believe that the most benefit can be obtained by eating fresh coconuts - the water inside as well as the coconut meat, which will also contain some of the oil.
The Bottom Line
Coconut oil can be used as part of a healthful diet, but use it in moderation. The main benefits often touted for coconut oil mainly stem from replacing other oils (long chain triglycerides) with coconut oils medium chain triglycerides. However, this doesn't mean that you should sit and eat spoonfuls of it out of the jar (although it does taste somewhat good this way).
It is probably best to limit your intake of all fats, with the exception of the essential fatty acids found in fish oil and flax oil.
And of course, moisterizing with coconut oil is beneficial. It is a healthy alternative to other lotions that contain ingredients that may contain unhealthy ingredients.
It is okay to eat some coconut oil, but just don't over do it. Overeating of any fat will not lead to fat loss, despite some of the claims you'll see on the Internet. I actually gained weight after I started eating a tablespoon of coconut oil everyday because it put me over my calorie limit.
Cox, C, Mann, J, Sutherland, W., Chiisholm, A., and Skeaff, M. (1995). Effects of coconut oil, butter, and safflower oil on lipids and lipoproteins in persons with moderately elevated cholesterol levels. Journal of Lipid Research 36 (8): 1787-1795.
Assunção ML, Ferreira HS, dos Santos AF, Cabral CR Jr, Florêncio TM. (2009). Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity. Lipids 44(7): 593-601.
Sabitha, P., Vaidyanathan, K., Vasudevan, DM., and Kamath, P. (2009). Comparison of lipid profile and antioxidant enzymes among south Indian men consuming coconut oil and sunflower oil. Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry 24(1): 76-81.