In today’s marketplace, it seems that we are constantly being presented with the next great thing – a way of eating, a food product, or a supplement, promising health benefits ranging from better skin to weight loss to a longer, healthier life. Because marketers are so slick, it is often really tough to figure out which claims are true, and which are an inflated or completely false version of reality.
Coconut oil is an example of a very successful marketing engine that has tirelessly promoted the its benefits, to the point where it seems almost commonly accepted that coconut oil is a healthy choice.
Coconut oil is an oil that is extracted from the nut of the coconut palm tree. Coconut oil is actually one of the least healthy oils you can eat, because it is almost purely saturated fat – it contains even more saturated fat than lard. Overall, studies show that saturated fat consumption is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.
(Sidebar: While studies overall have suggested that saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease, this has recently come into question with recovery of data from Minnesota Coronary Experiment in the 1960s. What is quite clear (from much more recent studies) is that replacing saturated fat with carbohydrates (ie a low fat, high carb diet) does not reduce heart risk. In fact, eating excess carbs as a replacement for saturated fat actually increases the risk of diabetes, weight gain and metabolic syndrome. Conversely, replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat in your diet can confer substantial health benefits, possibly including a reduction in cardiovascular events and mortality – read recent studies about this here and here.)
So why has coconut oil been touted as a ‘healthy’ fat? Here are some of the health claims that have been made:
1. Health Claim: Medium chain fatty acids (contained in coconut oil) may not raise bad cholesterol (LDL) as much as long chain fatty acids (found in other oils) do.
Reality check: This is highly controversial, with conflicting results in the small studies that have been done. There is also very little study of the effect of coconut oil on heart health, which is why we we care about LDL in the first place. Contrast this with extra virgin olive oil, which has been shown as part of a randomized clinical trial to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.
2. Health Claim: Fatty acids in coconut oil (medium chain) may not be as readily stored in fat tissue as long chain fatty acids.
Reality check: Whether or not this is true, adding additional fat to your diet should be avoided – coconut oil still contains 117 calories per tablespoon (this is about 10% of the total calories for a whole day for a typical woman trying to lose weight).
3. Health Claim: Coconut oil can improve Alzheimer’s disease and/or dementia.
Reality check: This claim started with a YouTube clip that went viral in 2012, showing a patient with Alzheimer’s who dramatically improved with eating coconut oil. This case was never confirmed or reported in any medical or scientific literature, and there is no clinical trial data to substantiate or refute this claim.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Avoid adding extra fat to your diet. When you do use fats or oils for cooking, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats are a better choice than saturated fat (eg extra virgin olive oil and canola oil). Coconut oil is not the way to go.