No matter where you look these days, coconut products seem to be everywhere. From coconut water beverages to coconut lotions, this trend has taken off over the past year. Coconut oil is another product that’s getting a fair share of attention, especially as it relates to potential health benefits. From helping control blood sugar to improving immunity to aiding with weight loss, the claims surrounding coconut oil run the gamut. With any trend or health claim, it’s essential to understand whether science supports the message, and my plan today is to take you through the science on coconut oil, positioning you to make an informed decision on if and how this food fits into your eating habits.
In her blog titled Good vs. Bad Fats and the Effects of Both, my colleague Jane Dummer, RD, gives an overview of the impact of various fats on health. Coconut oil, as it turns out, is 86% saturated fat according to the USDA National Nutrient Database, containing the highest saturated fat level of any oil. With this high level of saturated fat, calling this coconut product oil can be misleading. Oils are liquid at room temperature, whereas coconut oil is solid at room temperature due to its high saturated fat content, similar to butter. Liquid vegetable oils have much lower levels of saturated fat, like canola (7%), sunflower (9%) and olive oil (15%).
Jane’s fat basics suggest coconut oil would be considered a bad fat, one to limit in cooking and eating habits. Saturated fats, however, come in different lengths – short, medium and long. The long chain versions are found in meat products, and these circulate in the blood stream before being used by the human body for energy. If you eat too much of them, they build up in your blood vessels and lead to heart problems. More than 60% of the saturated fats in coconut oil are medium chain, which are used more quickly by the body for energy and don’t travel or build up in in the blood stream. The theory is that not all saturated fats have the same impact on heart disease and other health risks. Science, however, is still conflicted on how coconut oil and medium chain fats impact heart disease risk. It’s essential to remember that the remaining 40% of saturated fat in coconut oil is long chain, which can have negative health implications.
When deciding whether to include coconut oil in your eating habits, consider what type of fat you will replace. If you’re vegan, for example, and choose to replace butter with coconut oil, this would be reasonable. But if you choose to replace canola oil in a stir fry with coconut oil or to add coconut oil to a smoothie, your fat percentages are heading in the wrong direction as it relates to recognized health guidelines and heart health. According to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, there is insufficient evidence to suggest coconut oil is beneficial for hyperlipidemia, weight loss, or skin conditions. Valid scientific research doesn’t support the other health claims made about coconut oil.
As is true of most foods, moderation is likely the right approach when it comes to coconut oil use. As long as you’re keeping saturated fat to 10% of calories or less, the choice is up to you.