Oh, coconut oil. You have earned a spot in our pantries for many legit reasons. For one, you are a multitasking machine. You can be used for cooking, skincare, and hair care. Your shelf life is excellent. Plus, your price in bulk at Cosco is A+.
But is coconut oil truly as amazing as they say? Or is this just another “superfood” with a temporary spotlight? Let’s dive into what coconut oil really is, briefly review what the actual research has to say, and, finally, decide if this is a healthy fat worth your attention.
What even is coconut oil?
Made by pressing fresh or dried coconut meat, coconut oil is a source of saturated fat and solid at room temperature. Its structure is similar to butter, so when used for cooking or baking, it is excellent for higher temperatures (AKA delicious roasted veggies and crispy baked goods).
This oil has been a part of daily use in tropical regions historically, along with other coconut products. Until vegetable oils came along, coconut oil was actually a pretty popular plant-based fat source in America.
Coconut oil is unique in that its saturated fat structure includes both medium- and long-chain fatty acids. This is where MCT oil comes into play that we might hear about (medium-chain triglycerides). We’ll go into this a little bit more later if you’re interested.
Is saturated fat healthy?
Let’s talk more about the saturated fat piece of this. You might be thinking, “well…isn’t saturated fat not as healthy as unsaturated fat sources? Wouldn’t that make coconut oil not as healthy? What even are the different sources?”
First, let’s review alllll the different sources of healthy fat you can add to your plate:
Notice there is a mix of saturated and unsaturated sources. We love a good variety because both types have different vitamins, minerals, and chemical structures. Unsaturated sources like olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds are great for heart health and packed with omega 3s. It’s easy to not get enough of these if we aren’t intentional about choosing these sources and supplementing if needed as well.
Saturated sources of fat, like coconut oil, butter, and dairy are not necessarily unhealthy. Quite the opposite actually.
Saturated fat has been given a bad rap over the last several decades. Why is this? Well, it was really in the 1950s when the narrative started that “fat makes us fat” after some poorly conducted research studies. This started the years and years of the highly encouraged low-fat diets. Sound familiar? But did this improve our health? Absolutely not. Rates of obesity and heart disease rose pretty significantly actually.
After more recent research was conducted, we know that saturated fat does not have a direct relationship with heart disease. It is actually diets that are high in sugar and processed carbohydrates that have this correlation. Despite the evidence we have, it is hard to change how we think about fat after 50+ years of thinking a certain way. Not to mention, public health guidelines are typically 17 years behind research findings.
In the meantime, what we can emphasize is how beneficial saturated fat sources like coconut oil and red meat really can be as part of a balanced diet.
To start, saturated fat sources are always very nutrient-dense. Take beef for example. It includes vitamins and minerals like iron, zinc, and vitamin B12. Plus, don’t forget about the chemical structure. Saturated fats provide our cell membranes with really important lipids (another term for fat). Sounds boring, but think about how many cells our bodies are made of. We need healthy cells!
So instead of thinking about fat as saturated (bad) and unsaturated (good), think about including a variety in your day. Both have a purpose!
When it comes to unhealthy sources of fat that we do want to be more mindful of, see this graphic below. To be transparent, these oils are really just not ideal and can be very inflammatory to our bodies. Not included in the graphic are palm oil, grapeseed oil, and canola oil. These oils are not necessarily unhealthy, but moderation is key, and choosing cold-pressed is best.
Ok, cool. Now that we know we don’t have to take coconut oil off the table (pun intended) simply because it is a saturated fat, let’s move on and debunk all of its claims to fame. Is it really as healthy as the media tells us?
Coconut oil for weight loss?
Does coconut oil help us to lose weight directly? No. It’s not a magic oil (sorry).
What we have to remember is that no matter what, no single food has the ability to directly lead to weight loss. What we do know, though, is that the right balance of foods, especially for blood sugar balance, is very supportive of a healthy metabolism and our ability to lose fat sustainably. Coconut oil can absolutely be a part of the PHFF equation for meal building.
One of the reasons people have been led to believe that coconut oil can help us burn fat better is because of its composition of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
Unlike other types of triglycerides in the foods we eat, MCTs require a less complicated method for digestion and are more easily absorbed into the bloodstream. For this reason, sources of MCTs are used to help manage many gastrointestinal disorders.
MCTs are also more readily available to be used for energy and oxidation in the body. They do not have to circulate in the body like long-chain triglycerides have to, meaning they do not go to be stored as fat right away. This can be beneficial, however, if we don’t need to use the MCTs as energy. We will still store it as fat eventually.
As a Mayo Clinic article puts things: just because something is metabolized more quickly if we need it to doesn’t mean we can have a field day with it. Coconut oil still has calories and if we don’t need to use it for energy right away, we will still store it as fat like any other food.
Looking at one other piece of research, a 2020 randomized controlled trial looked into the effect of coconut oil for weight loss among a group of obese men. In the end, there was no notable changes in weight or other measurements after consuming coconut oil daily for 45 days.
While, in general, the research remains mixed regarding coconut oil’s potential role in weight loss, we do recognize that it is a good option as a fat source for our PHFF plate. It is satisfying and helps balance blood sugar, which again, we know is a key player in the weight loss game.
Coconut oil for heart health?
Another bold claim: “coconut oil is beneficial for the cardiovascular system.” True or false?
There definitely have been certain groups of people in the world recognized for their high consumption of coconut oil (compared to other groups of people) and their decreased risk for cardiovascular disease. It’s important to note, though, that these people also had diets high in vegetables, fish, and minimally processed foods. That being said, it is unlikely that simply adding coconut oil to the typical American diet will automatically improve heart health.
Hope is not lost though. Coconut oil has been shown to have a positive influence on heart health. Epidemiologic studies have found an association between the consumption of coconut products, including coconut cream, coconut oil, and whole coconut, and having higher levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol).
Interestingly, a 2018 randomized trial found that coconut oil was able to increase HDL cholesterol levels significantly in men and women after 4 weeks, in comparison to butter and olive oil.
On the flip side, another review of literature found that coconut oil and other coconut products had a relationship in increasing levels of LDL cholesterol (the not-so-great kind of cholesterol), total cholesterol, and serum triglycerides. Unfortunately, these are all related to cardiovascular disease risk factors.
Even though coconut oil can increase our LDL cholesterol, one study found its impact to be less significant than eating butter. This isn’t to say we should never have butter, but rather put emphasis on the importance of choosing a variety of fats, both from plant and animal sources.
In other words, coconut oil increases both types of cholesterol in our bodies and the research remains unclear as to whether it truly has a significant benefit to our heart health at the end of the day. Unsaturated sources of fat remain ideal for supporting heart health, so keeping the variety in our diet is important.
Coconut oil for diabetes management?
Another rumor floating around about coconut oil is its ability to help prevent and treat diabetes. This is a big claim. Is it true though?
So back in 1992, a research study found that lauric acid (the primary fatty acid in coconut oil) increased insulin output in the islet cells of mice. This led to a proactive conclusion that coconut oil also increases insulin output in humans, which would therefore improve blood sugar levels.
Unfortunately, there is currently no concrete evidence from research to back this up, especially with humans as subjects. Plus, studies have been mixed over the years on the true impact of saturated fat on insulin sensitivity (or how well our body uses insulin to keep blood sugar in range).
Coconut oil for immunity?
Anything related to improving our immune system is eye-catching these days, but does coconut oil really help us in this way?
There is actually quite a lot of research regarding coconut oil and its antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties. Lauric acid, Capric acid, and Monolaurin are the major metabolites known to be in coconut oil. They are known to prevent pathogen binding to host cells in the body, inhibit pathogen maturation, and reduce infection rates.
While the entire system of immunity in the body is quite complex, a quality review article from 2020 does a great job of summing things up and explaining how these components of coconut oil can play a role. I recommend checking it out if you’re interested.
This is also a good time to remember that our immune systems should be supported in multiple avenues: our nutrition, movement, sleep, gut health, and stress management for starters. Coconut oil’s effects on the immune system are still being understood through emerging research.
So, what’s the verdict?
Coconut oil is definitely trendy and has been for several years, but we don’t need to be fooled by some of the marketing out there. This oil by itself doesn’t have a direct ability to help us lose weight, avoid heart disease, prevent diabetes, or many of the other health claims.
I still think it deserves a spot in our pantries though! Coconut oil is a shelf-stable fat source that can help us add new and fun flavors to our dishes. When paired with lots of protein and fiber, it can create a very blood-sugar-friendly meal.
On the downside, coconut oil only contains some vitamin E and not hardly any other vitamins, minerals, or fiber. As a fat source, though, with fat-soluble vitamin E, it can definitely help us absorb more nutrition from the other foods we eat. Did I mention that roasting broccoli, cauliflower, or asparagus is delicious with coconut oil??
Like many other “superfoods,” it’s easy to get really excited about certain foods in our kitchens, but remember the real magic is in the big picture of what we put on our plate over a long period of time. It’s all about that lifestyle, my friend.
In the end, if you enjoy the taste of coconut oil and it helps you increase the variety of fat sources in your diet, I would recommend it.
Coconut Oil Recipes:
If you want to incorporate more coconut oil into your life, check out these recipe links below:
– Elle, MM Coach