It seems like everyone is into coconut oil these days. Lots of celebrities, chefs, trainers, nutritionists claim coconut oil can help with weight loss, cardiovascular disease, immune function and even cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s. Let’s look at what the evidence shows, and we can draw our own conclusions.
Before we get into the data, it’s important to understand the basics of coconut oil. Coconut oil is derived from coconuts via a few ways. The standard or “dry” process is through drying the kernel to produce copra. The copra is then pressed, dissolved, refined, bleached and deodorized to produce the coconut oil. The other, “wet process”, is where the oil is extracted from coconut milk or fresh kernel. The final product is often referred to as virgin coconut oil.
Interestingly, virgin coconut oil contains up to 7 times higher concentrations of polyphenols than standard coconut oil.
Coconut oil is roughly 82% saturated fat. About half of which is lauric acid and the rest is myristic, palmitic, and stearic acid. It also has 6% monounsaturated fat (oleic acid) and 1.7% polyunsaturated fat (linoleic acid).
Lauric acid and Myristic acid raise HDL cholesterol (high density lipoprotein). However, data shows that HDL cholesterol changes through diet or drugs may not be directly linked to cardiovascular disease.
A lot of the benefits of coconut oil are attributed to coconut oil’s concentration of medium chain triglycerides (capric and caprylic acid). However, only 13-15% of coconut oil is medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s). So, you would need to take a lot of coconut oil to match the amount used in studies on MCT’s.
The thought process behind MCT’s is that they are rapidly broken, go straight to the liver and may play a role in weight loss. They are also considered to not adversely affect blood cholesterol levels. However, a recent study looking at MCT in adolescents showed no increase in thermogenesis, or a decrease in appetite or satiety. In another study comparing virgin coconut oil to extra virgin olive oil, there was also no difference in metabolism or fat oxidation.
Once we move beyond the MCT issue, the cardiovascular health benefits of coconut oil are cited from the studies looking at indigenous populations from India, Sri Lanka, Philippines, Polynesia and Melanesia. However, most of these populations rely on coconuts and not coconut oil. The remainder of their diet tends to be higher in whole foods and lower in sugar and processed foods.
In the case of the Pukapukans and Tokelauans, their overall diet is very low in sugar and rich in high fiber foods. It consists mainly of coconuts, breadfruit, and fish. There is little, if any, consumption of coconut oil.
The Kitava studies examined the Melanesian people in Papua New Guinea. Their overall fat intake is only 21%. In addition, their diet is mostly whole coconuts, tubers, fish, and fruit. Their intake of oils, margarine, and sugar is very little. In other words, mostly whole-food, plant-based diet.
When looking at Samoans, their traditional diet also consists of coconuts along with seafood, low intake of processed foods. Of course, all that has changed now with the widely available processed food, refined sugars and red meat (beef, spam).
When we look at biomarkers of cardiovascular disease such as serum lipid profiles, studies show that coconut oil consistently raises cholesterol higher than monounsaturated (Oleic acid) and polyunsaturated oils (linoleic acid).
It should be noted that coconuts are a high fiber food. One cup of coconut flesh has 7 grams of fiber. Eating coconuts are not linked to cardiovascular disease.
The bottom line is that coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, does not increase thermogenesis or weight loss. Based on all the current research we have so far, regular use of coconut oil should not be advised. As always, a whole foods diet consisting of mainly plants should be the foundation of a healthy eating pattern.
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