The Facts about Coconut Oil

By Barbara Gordon, RDN, LD
Coocoo for Coconut Oil: Think Again

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According to a 2016 New York Times survey, about three in four Americans consider coconut oil a healthy option. But only one-third of nutrition experts agree. 

So, What’s the Truth?

Just like butter, coconut oil is high in saturated fat. Saturated fats may cause blood cholesterol levels to rise. They may promote the buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries and increase your risk of developing heart disease. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans advise limiting your intake of saturated fat to less than 10 percent of your daily calories.

Coconut Oil and Health

There’s lots of information on the web about the supposed health benefits of coconut oil ranging from promoting weight loss to controlling diabetes to reversing Alzheimer’s disease. Here’s a summary of some of the evidence behind a few of the more common health claims.

Helping with Weight Loss

Some weight loss programs tout coconut oil because it contains medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs. Claims about MCTs include that these fats promote weight loss by speeding up metabolism and that they reduce belly bloat. True or false?  These claims are based on studies done with a small number of participants. Thus, we don’t yet know if these claims apply to others. Plus, both the amount of pounds shed and inches lost by study participants were very slight. In some of the studies, participants made other changes that could have promoted those changes. For example, they ate less calories and exercised more. So, at this time, we don’t have proof that coconut oil may promote weight loss. More research is needed.

Controlling Type 2 Diabetes

Diabetes causes the level of glucose, or sugar, in your blood to rise above the normal level. Animal studies suggest that coconut oil may be beneficial for individuals with Type 2 diabetes. However, findings in animal studies may not be applicable to humans. And, there currently is limited evidence supporting the value of coconut oil for people with Type 2 diabetes. If you have Type 2 diabetes, treat coconut oil like any other saturated fat. Use it sparingly.

Reversing Alzheimer’s Disease

The link between brain health and coconut oil stems from the MCTs. Glucose, which your body gets from the foods you eat, is the main source of energy for the brain. Some researchers believe that the brains of individuals with Alzheimer’s disease do not efficiently break down glucose for energy. Therefore, their brains need an alternative source of energy. One theory is that the MCTs found in coconut oil may be able to provide that backup energy source. Sounds like a promising benefit, but at this point, it is a theory that has no scientific support.

And, so?

The jury is out with regards to coconut oil. What is known is that coconut oil is high in saturated fat. And, diets high in saturated fat may raise cholesterol levels in the body, which could increase your risk for heart attack and stroke.

While you don’t have to avoid coconut oil altogether, be cautious about how much you are using and limit your total intake of saturated fats. Research shows that replacing saturated fats, such as coconut oil, with polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil, may be better for overall health.