Thursday, February 6, 2014

Is Coconut Oil Really Good For You?

In the nearly fifteen years that I’ve been writing about health and fitness, I’ve seen a lot of nutrition trends come and go (and occasionally come back again). There was the fat-free craze, which backfired in a whole host of ways. (Hey! Licorice is a fat-free candy! These cookies taste like cardboard but have no fat! That means they’re good for you…right? Um, no.) Then there were the low-carb/high-protein diets, which were discredited by a lot of experts but are now sort of back in sleek new (or, really, incredibly old) Paleo packages.

There have also been countless super foods, from chocolate to chia, kale to quinoa, touted for their health-boosting benefits—and some of the evidence is certainly compelling. Coconut oil* is another recent addition to this list, and a lot of people (including plenty of fans of The Whole Life Challenge) have eagerly embraced it. However, it’s also been met with scrutiny, especially because of its saturated fat content. So what’s the deal? Is it a miracle cure for all that ails you, a sensationalized jar of snake oil or, even worse, a heart attack waiting to happen? I’ll admit that I’ve been consuming a fair amount of it myself since starting The Whole Life Challenge, so I decided to take a look at the science behind the health claims. Here are some key facts worth considering:

Saturated fat isn’t entirely satanic. Lard, cream, gristle—whatever you want to call it, the stuff that’s especially common in meat and dairy (but also coconuts!) has recently gotten a bit of a hall pass from health experts. It’s reminiscent of how eggs have been redeemed after all the concerns about cholesterol. One 2010review of studies states: “There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] or CVD [cardiovascular disease].” Although most experts I’ve talked with still believe it’s wise to limit saturated fats (partly because animal fats in particular can still cause inflammation and be high in calories), some—including AndrewWeil, MD and DavidKatz, MD—acknowledge that we should at least revise how we view them. I especially love what Dr. Katz says here: “…even if there are harms attached to some saturated fats, summary judgment against the whole clan was never valid.

Coconut oil has a unique fat profile. Most fats and oils, whether from plants or animals, are made up of long-chain triglycerides (LCTs)—but coconut oil is mainly comprised of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). As this review explains, in addition to being slightly lower in calories (8.3 per gram versus 9 per gram in other fats), MCTs are rapidly digested, absorbed and burned by the body for energy rather than being stored as fat, so they “do not behave as conventional fats.” Some people believe this means coconut oil is great for weight loss, but there’s not a ton of evidence to back that up. Mostly, based on this study and this one, it appears that it helps to alter body composition (specifically getting rid of some ab flab) but not necessarily to shed a significant amount of poundage. Then again, this review makes a solid case for replacing LCTs with MCTs, noting that it can help boost metabolism and curb appetite. So—much like other “healthy fats” (omega-3s and monounsaturated fatty acids)—coconut oil at least seems like a nice weapon in the battle against weight-gain.

Other health claims are intriguing. You probably know that coconut oil can be good for smoothing skin and hair (although, personally, I haven’t found it to absorb as well as other moisturizers), but it’s also believed to have several other medicinal uses. This study says it should be used as an anti-fungal treatment for candida (yup, that would be yeast infections), especially as antibiotic drug resistance continues to be an issue, and this study notes that its antimicrobial properties make it effective for fighting Staph infections and a whole host of foodborne pathogens, including E. coliImpressive stuff! Incidentally (food science geek alert), I have noticed that the banana-nut muffins I made several days ago (which contain a fair amount of coconut oil) have held up surprisingly well and not gone moldy, and I'm wondering if the antimicrobial properties of the oil have had a preservative effect.

Anyway, what do we make of all this information? Is coconut oil really good for you? The answer appears to be yes. Should we be consuming it in mass quantities? Well, no, for many of the same reasons you shouldn't down vats of red wine or eat dark chocolate by the pound (tempting as it can be!). Bottom line: I’m definitely not afraid to use coconut oil in my cooking and think a couple tablespoons a day could be beneficial. How about you?

Note: Experts suggest specifically using virgin/cold-pressed coconut oil, which is different from the processed, partially or fully hydrogenated type (that contains hazardous trans-fats!). I make sure to buy organic, too, for environmental and health reasons. I get mine at Trader Joe's. It's inexpensive and delicious!


  1. Phew! Glad that it isn't one more thing that we need to avoid. Thanks for the well-written and informative post!!


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