Should We Go Cuckoo for Coconut Oil?

A couple of weeks ago on this blog, we covered the very trendy alkaline diet (click here if you missed it and want to catch up). Perhaps an even trendier nutrition topic is coconut oil. What is it? What does it do? Why is everyone talking about it?

First, here’s a quick review of coconut oil’s nutrition facts. 100% of the calories in coconut oil come from fat. One tablespoon provides around 120 calories (about 14 grams of fat). Almost 90% of this comes from saturated fat. It does not contain a notable amount of any vitamin or mineral.

So is this just a vegetarian replica of butter? Not quite. What makes coconut oil unique is the presence of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCT’s. MCT’s are basically fat molecules with shorter fatty acid chains than regular fat molecules. These are absorbed more quickly than other fats.

Due to the presence of MCT’s in coconut oil, there are a number of health benefits being touted by certain individuals in the wellness industry. Among these are: treating Alzheimer’s, preventing heart disease, protecting your liver, curing infections, preventing and treating cancer, boosting immunity, improving memory, increasing energy and endurance, improving digestion, treating gallbladder disease and pancreatitis, preventing osteoporosis, treating diabetes, losing weight, building muscle, and, last but not least, slowing the aging process.

In reality, I could have made this list much longer. Given enough time to peruse the Internet, you may be led to believe that there’s nothing coconut oil can’t do. But how much of this is legitimate?

The short answer is not much. It doesn’t prevent heart disease – in fact, the American Heart Association very recently cautioned against excessive consumption of coconut oil because, despite the presence of MCT’s, almost 90% of the fats in coconut oil are saturated. And while there has also been renewed debate about the role of saturated fats in the diet recently, consuming coconut oil in the amounts being suggested is probably more saturated fat than our bodies need.

Using coconut oil to improve cognition in Alzheimer’s patients may have some potential, but at this point it’s largely theoretical. Using MCT’s to convert the brain’s energy source from glucose to ketones did show some merit in improving cognition in adults with memory disorders in a 2004 study, but the evidence at this point is far from solid. Besides, a more concentrated MCT supplement would be used in such a case – not coconut oil. And to be clear, there is no evidence that coconut oil consumption would prevent the development of Alzheimer’s in the first place.

There is also no evidence that coconut oil has benefits for increasing energy and endurance in athletic competition, and it definitely does not “melt fat”. There may be some metabolic benefits to consumption of MCT’s, but the most commonly referenced study linking coconut oil to weight loss only yielded about one extra pound of weight loss over a 12-week period for those in the “coconut oil” group.

In addition, studies showing metabolic benefits of coconut oil have used a “dose” of 1-2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day. This is far less than what some coconut oil fanatics are consuming. Understanding context is an important aspect of nutrition, as many foods are nutritious in certain amounts but cause health problems when consumed excessively.

Coconut oil is also very expensive. It’s usually 2-3 times the cost of olive oil, which has clearer evidence of nutritional benefit as a source of monounsaturated fats. Other good sources of monounsaturated fats include avocados, nuts, and seeds – all of which are likely to be more affordable than coconut oil.

In short, if you like your coconut oil and it works for you feel free to keep it. But the portion/dose matters, and don’t expect it to be a cure-all for health. As usual, we tend to overreact to new trends in nutrition. Alleged “superfoods” like coconut oil often do have certain health benefits, but they don’t make up for having other poor habits with nutrition, exercise, and sleep.

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