Coconut Oil: Good? Bad? Or somewhere in between?
There is a lot of information out there on coconut oil. Lots of sources label it as a “health food” with a variety of great health benefits. Others seem less convinced. It is in fact, a saturated fat. Haven’t we learned those are bad for you?
We get this question a lot at Naturemed: Is coconut oil good for you? And should I be eating it. As with all health topics, usually the answer is not black and white. And the same is true with coconut oil. Through a review of some of the literature we will try to flush out the rumors, myths and facts.
Lets start with the Good:
Coconut Oil as an antimicrobial agent:
Coconut oil contains a compound known as Lauric acid. It is a saturated fatty acid that makes up almost 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil.
When coconut oil is digested in the body, it forms a compound known as monolaurin.
Both lauric acid and monolaurin have been found to be highly antimicrobial (Kabara, Swieckowski, Conley et al., 1972) and have the ability to kill common bacteria such as Staph Aureus (the bacteria involved with acne) and the yeast Candida Albicans (the organism responsible for yeast infections).
Coconut oil can also be used to kill the bad bacteria in our mouth that are the cause of bad breath with Oil Pulling:
Hold 1-2 tsp of coconut oil in your mouth for 5-10mins in the morning as a natural mouthwash to kill bad bacteria contributing to plaque and bad breath.
Coconut Oil as a Weight Loss Supplement:
Weight is more than calories in vs calories out. It is about how our bodies use those calories and how well/how quickly our engine is burning those calories. There has been some talk about coconut oil “increasing energy expenditure” and thus increasing our “engine burning”. If our engine is burning through food more quickly that means we are using more energy and thus more calories. In this way, it is easier to create the caloric deficit necessary to lose weight.
Studies looked at the effects on metabolic rate with a medium chain triglyceride (coconut oil) vs a long chain triglyceride fat. They found that the medium chain triglycerides found in coconut oil can increase energy expenditure compaired to the same amount of calories of a long chain fatty acid. They concluded that the long term substitution of MCT for LCT would produce weight loss if the energy intake remained constant. (Seaton, Welle et al. 1986)
Another study concluded that low to moderate intake of coconut oil (15-30g/day) may play a role in the control of human body composition by enhancing daily energy expenditure. (Dulloo, A.G, Fathi et al. 1996)
Coconut Oil as a Sunscreen:
Coconut oil can be effective as a mild sunscreen and skin moisturizer. It is effective in blocking about 20% of the sun’s UV rays (Korac & Khambholja, 2011)
Coconut Oil and your Heart:
Perhaps the biggest controversy aout coconut is that it is a saturated fat. In fact, Coconut oil doesn’t just contain saturated fat, it is one of the most saturated fats, with almost 90% of the fatty acids contained in it being saturated.
If Coconut oil is full of saturated fat, isn’t that bad for my cholesterol? Didn’t my doctor say to avoid saturated fats?
There is not a short answer to this question, so lets get one with the long answer!
First of all, it is important to remember that not all saturated fats are created equally. The saturated fats found in animal meats have different effects on cholesterol than the saturated fats found in coconut oil. LDL (your bad cholesterol) gets lots of attention and is the one you dont want to see high on your blood tests. HDL (your good cholesterol) is also important. In fact, studies show that the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL is a more specific marker of coronary artery than is LDL cholesterol. They found coconut oil to increase total cholesterol but mostly due in fact to the increase in HDL it caused (the good cholesterol) and the small increase in LDL. So does this matter if it is the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL that has more influence on CAD? (Mensink et al. 2003)
The answer is more complicated when you look at the alternatives to coconut oil. When you ask many people to avoid saturated fat they usually replace the decreased fat in their diet with carbohydrates. In fact these carbohydrates may be worse than the coconut oil you are replacing. Excess carbohydrates are converted to fats for energy storage in the body and the human body synthesizes mostly saturated fats from excess carbohydrates. Therefore the whole idea of a low fat diet may have zero effect on improving lipid status as the excess carbohydrates are being converted to just the thing the patient is trying to avoid! In fact, a low fat high/carbohydrate diet causes an increase in triglycerides and small, dense LDL particles (the bad kind) which are more strongly associated with CAD than serum cholesterol or LDL. Coconut oil is anti-inflammatory and while it may cause small increases in cholesterol, it’s anti-inflammatory effects are protective against Cardiovascular Disease. In fact, a review of the literature by Lawrence (2103) showed that inflammation and oxidation of fats in foods may be a stronger predictor of cardiovascular disease, atherosclerosis and endothelial damage than the actual cholesterol contained in those foods.
After considering all the evidence, it must be said that while coconut oil may have some effects on your cholesterol, it is definitely a lesser of evils. If deciding between animal saturated fats such as lard or highly processed fats such as corn oil or canola oil, choose coconut oil every time. An added benefit of coconut oil is that it oxidizes at a very high temperature and therefore is one of the better oils to cook or fry with. However, the LDL raising effects of coconut oil can’t be ignored. Olive oil may be a better choice for those folllowing a targeted cholesterol lowering diet. (Lawrence, 2013)
Bottom Line for Cardiovascular disease: Coconut oil may raise LDL cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol but it also raises HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol). Use coconut oil in moderation and go with olive oil on salads or with low heat cooking. Choose coconut oil over oils such as corn, canola or butter for its other great health benefits and stay away from trans fats.
Kabara, J., Swieczkowski, D., Conly, A. & Truant, J. (1972). Fatty acids and derivatives as antimicrobial agents. Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy. Jul; 2(1): 23-28.
Seaton, TB., Welle, S.L., Warenko, M.K. & Campbell, R.G. 1986. Thermic effect of medium chain and long chain triglycerides in man. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 44(5):630-4.
Dulloo, A.G., Fathi, M., Mensi, N., Girardier, L. 1996. Europian Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Mar; 50(3): 152-8.
Korac, R.R., Khambholja, K.M. 2011. Potential of herbs in skin protection from ultraviolet radiation. Pharmacognosy Reviews. 5(10): 164-73.
Mensink, R., Zock, P., Kester, A. & Katan, M. 2003. Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of seru total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta analysis of 60 controlled trials. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol 77 no.5 1146-1155.
Lawrence, G. 2013. Dietary fats and health: dietary recommendations in the context of scientific evidence. Advances in Nutrition. Vol 4: 294-302.