Coconut oil has transitioned into the mainstream after a history of being looked down upon for it’s saturated fat content. Many rave about this product, including the beloved Dr. Oz (for my other posts on Dr.Oz click here and here).
Initially, I dismissed this hype about coconut oil. However after looking more into our new understanding of the way the coconut oil fats are metabolized, my opinion of this product has changed. Let’s look at the research and arguments for and against coconut oil.
What is Coconut Oil?
- A creamy tasting oil that is solid at room temperature. Per tablespoon, it provides 116 calories, which is similar to olive oil (119 cals/tablespoon). However the nutrient profile is different – while olive oil is largely unsaturated fat, coconut oil is 85% so-called bad saturated fat.
Unique Properties of Coconut Oil
- Although coconut oil is rich in saturated fat, it isn’t the same kind of saturated fat you’d find in animal fats. Instead, the saturated fat is made up of medium-chain triglycerides or MCT’s. The MCT chains in coconut oil are only 12 to 14 carbon’s long, while the saturated fats associated with heart disease are 16 carbons or longer (long-chain fatty acids or LCFA’s). The MCT’s are metabolized differently than LCFA’s, as MCT’s enter the bloodstream and immediately become available as an energy source. This is in contrast to LCFA’s which are repackaged in the liver and taken up by the body’s fat source. However, please note that this doesn’t mean the MCT’s in coconut oil are ‘free calories’. Excessive calorie intake of any food can lead to an increase in fat storage.
Research on Coconut Oil
- There has been interesting yet conflicting results from the research on coconut oil. On one hand, it sees that eating coconut oil triggers an increase in cholesterol levels, especially LDL cholesterol (Kumarasunderam, 1990; Samarajeewa, 2001). However, population studies suggest the coconut oil is not associated with heart disease risk (Kumar,1997; Lipoeto, 2004).
- Part of the explanation for coconut oils seemingly conflicting effects could be related to its effect on increasing HDL, or good cholesterol.
- The link between coconut oil and weight loss isn’t clear either. While coconut oil is high in calories, the MCTs it contains seems to be associated with weight loss (St-Onge MP, 2008)
- A study by Liau (2011) raised the issue of the quality of coconut oil, which could be important. Coconut oil in its highest-quality form is known as virgin or extra-virgin coconut oil. This is it’s most unprocessed form, and it appears to be richer in nutrients and phytochemicals compared to its refined form.
We should note that although coconut oil does tend to undesirably increase LDL cholesterol, it also tends to desirably increase HDL cholesterol. While LDL is typically known as an indicator for heart disease risk, the data on coconut oil we have to date suggests that it doesn’t seem to be related to actual heart disease risk. As for weight loss, we don’t have enough data to conclude that the MCT’s it contains act as a weight loss miracle. If you were to use coconut oil regularly, it’s still important to exchange coconut oil for other high-calorie foods, rather than taking it as a supplement on top of your regular diet.