Health Benefits and Cautions about Coconut Oil

coconut oil

by Sepideh Sarbazi MSc, RD

The popularity of coconut oil has increased dramatically, particularly after TV personality Dr. Oz made claims that coconut oil can help people lose weight, treat skin conditions and help ulcers.

Miraculous health claims about any food or nutrient need to be looked at closely, and considered in terms of the what peer-reviewed studies indicate. If an ad or an article about a food or product seems too-good-to-be-true, it may well be. Looking at what the scientific literature has found provides a more balanced view.

Firstly, What Makes Coconut Oil Different than Other Oils?

Coconut oil is much higher in saturated fat than most other sources of fats and oils in our diet, which is why it is solid at room temperature. Approximately 90% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated fat, compared with only 63% for butter, for example.

Olive oil, has only about 15% of the total fat, as saturated fat.

It is the very high percentage of saturated fat that is in Coconut oil that is concerning to many health care professionals, as saturated fats in general have been associated with an increase in “bad” cholesterol levels (LDL).

Medium Chain Triglycerides

Coconut Oil is high in what is called “Medium Chain Triglycerides” or “MCTs” which are metabolized differently than the longer chain fats – going straight to the liver, rather than needing to be broken down through digestion. What makes Coconut Oil different than other oils is that half of the saturated fatty acid in it are made up of a Medium Chain Triglyceride, called Lauric Acid (44 – 52%).

A quarter (~24%) to a third (33%) of the fatty acids in Coconut Oil contain the long-chain saturated fats, including Mysteric (13-19 %) and Palmitic Acids (8-11%) and ~10-20% of the fatty acids are made up of 2 short chain saturated fatty acids, Caproic (Decoic) Acid (5-9%) and Caprylic Acid (6-10%).

The remaining 10% of the fatty acids are unsaturated, mostly Oleic Acid with a small amount of Linoleic Acid.

Coconut Oil, MCTs and Weight Loss

Some weight-loss studies using 100% medium chain triglycerides have shown modest weight loss compared to the use of olive oil over a 4-month period, however a study comparing Coconut oil (~50% MCTs) with soy bean oil (almost all long chain triglycerides), did not have a significant impact on weight loss over a 3-month period. While the actual amount of weight loss with MCT oil may not be substantial, studies seem to indicate that it is “visceral adiposity” or “belly fat” that decreases, lowering waist circumference.

Coconut Oil and Cholesterol

When it comes to cholesterol, there are numerous studies that have found that coconut oil raises HDL, the so-called “good cholesterol”, to a greater extent than olive oil however, some studies indicated that coconut oil increases LDL (the “bad cholesterol”), whereas other studies have found that it doesn’t change LDL cholesterol, or if it did raise it, it was in an insignificant amount. Increase is LDL cholesterol is a concern as it is associated with an increase risk of heart disease.

Recommendations

Remember that there is no “miracle” food or ingredient or fat. While Coconut Oil has been found to increase HDL (“good” cholesterol), it may raise LDL cholesterol (or may not) , but like any fat, Coconut Oil has a lot of calories.

While it is approximately half MCT oil which may help lower abdominal fat, still ~40% of Coconut Oil is long chain saturated fat, which may impact heart health. People with a risk of heart disease should be cautious about increasing their intake of coconut oil and would be better looking to cold pressed olive oil which are 65-80% monounsaturated (oleic), 7-16% saturates (palmitic) or using cold pressed avocado oil which are 76% monounsaturated (oleic and palmitoleic acids), 12% polyunsaturates (linoleic and linolenic acids) and only 12% saturates (palmitic and stearic acids).

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References

Chempro – Edible Oil Analysis Retrieved from http://www.chempro.in/fattyacid.htm

Health Canada. (2012). Summary of Health Canada’s Assessment of a Health Claim about the Replacement of Saturated Fat with Mono- and Polyunsaturated Fat and Blood Cholesterol Lowering. Retrieved from http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca.ezproxy.library.ubc.ca/fn-an/label-etiquet/claims-reclam/assess-evalu/sat-mono-poly-fat-gras-eng.php

Kruse, M. (2013, January 10). I don’t buy what Dr. Oz is trying to sell. Huffpost Living. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/michael-kruse/dr-oz-oil_b_2444772.html#slide=1854404

Liau KM, Lee YY, Chen CK, Rasool AHG. An Open-Label Pilot Study to Assess the Efficacy and Safety of Virgin Coconut Oil in Reducing Visceral Adiposity. ISRN Pharmacology. 2011;2011:949686. doi:10.5402/2011/949686.

Oz, M. (2012). Coconut Oil Superpowers, Pt. 1 [Video file]. Retrieved from http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/coconut-oil-super-powers-pt-1

Schardt, D. (2012). Coconut Oil: Lose weight? Clear your arteries? Cure Alzheimers?. Nutrition Action Health Letter. 39. 10-11. Retrieved from http://www.cspinet.org/nah/

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