If you’re reading this, it probably isn’t news to you that coconut oil has been promised to do many things: reduce inflammation, burn fat, reduce body weight, stabilise blood sugar and even make your coffee resistant to ammunition. So, is coconut oil really the cure-all you should have each and every day? Here’s what the science says.
Let’s talk about fats
Coconut oil, being an oil, is 100% fat- no fibre, protein etc. This is absolutely okay, fat is an essential part of our diet, however it is the types of fats in our diet that impact our health.
Fats called saturated and trans fats are often referred to as ‘unhealthy’ fats, due to their links with increased risk of heart disease when high in our diets. These fats are commonly in things like ultra-processed foods, meats (amounts vary), butter. We are learning these types of fats may be detrimental to different extents.
Unsaturated fats on the other hand, are often called the ‘healthy’ fats- these are found in foods like olive oil, fish, nuts, avocado etc. Replacing saturated fats with these fats, reduces this disease risk.
Aren’t we here to talk about coconut oil?
Coconut oil is ~92% saturated fat. One type of saturated fat within coconut oil is called lauric acid (sometimes now seen on labelling as C12). Lauric acid is one of the main reasons it is argued to be a ‘healthy’ fat- it mimics unsaturated fats by increasing our HDL (or “good cholesterol”)- which is one positive. HOWEVER, it also increases your LDL (or “bad cholesterol”) and total cholesterol- this is not good for heart health.
Coconut oil has been found to increase LDL and total cholesterol to a lesser extent than animal fats like butter, but significantly more than unsaturated plant oils like olive oil and canola.
There have been some recent queries about an extra virgin coconut oil potentially containing protective polyphenols and having a different effect than other types on disease risk- the current body of evidence does not support nor completely deny this. This is due studies not declaring the type of coconut oil used, as well as different types being used throughout the body of evidence. Extra virgin coconut oil has been used in some studies contributing to the current views, but we can't say either way.
Have you heard that coconut oil or MCT oils burn fat?
This is a common marketing strategy and source of confusion I see. Medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, are used differently to other long-chain fats, being readily available for energy. Though you are burning to fat you consume, not body fat. Additionally, while lauric acid is often considered an MCT, it is metabolised like a long-chain fat.
What about the other claims?
Anecdotally, I really like putting coconut oil in my hair, but it doesn’t fare so well for the other claims.
A recent meta-analysis assessed 16 studies, looking at the effects of coconut oil compared to other oils on cardiovascular disease risk. The studies included those between the ages of 20-60 years and both with and without current disease.
This study not only confirmed that coconut oil significantly increases LDL levels, but also showed that coconut oil has no effects on body weight, waist circumference, % body fat, fasting glucose levels or CRP (an inflammatory marker)- meaning it is not all it’s claimed to be.
So, what’s the point? Should you include it in your diet?
Coconut oil contains 505kJ in 1 tablespoon, is 92% saturated fat and is associated with increased cholesterol levels- good and bad.
You can use coconut oil as you enjoy- in treats, in your hair, probably don’t ruin your coffee. Though I would be cautious of how often it appears in your diet. There is currently no evidence to recommend frequent consumption of coconut oil, particularly when it we consider that there are oils we know have positive effects on health- like extra virgin olive oil which raises our HDL while reducing our LDL, due to being so antioxidant-rich. It is safe to cook with EVOO- more on this soon.
Your diet must be considered as whole for optimal health- you eat foods, not nutrients. There is no one food that will cure or cause disease. Having a diet lower in saturated and trans fats but rich in unsaturated fats is ideal.
Want even more to read? Some references are below
Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A, Brown RC. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutr Rev. 2016 Apr;74(4):267-80.
Khaw KT, Sharp SJ, Finikarides L, Afzal I, Lentjes M, Luben R, et al. Randomised trial of coconut oil, olive oil or butter on blood lipids and other cardiovascular risk factors in healthy men and women. BMJ Open. 2018 Mar 6;8(3):e020167.
Eyres L. Heart Foundation Evidence paper - Coconut oil and the heart. 2014. Available from: https://www.heartfoundation.org.nz/resources/coconut-oil-and-the-heart-evidence-paper/
Sacks et al. (2017). Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation, 136 (3), e1–e23.
Neelakantan, N.H., Seah, J.M., & Van Dam, R. (2020). The effect of coconut oil consumption on cardiovascular risk factors: A systematic review and meta analysis of clinical trials. Circulation, 14 (10), 803-814.
Not a study, but a nice summary of evidence re: saturated fats and LDL: https://sigmanutrition.com/diet-on-lipids/