by Jen Rawson, RD
For a long time, olive oil was king of the cooking oils. Due to its widespread use in the Mediterranean diet (largely regarded as one of the healthiest eating patterns), it quickly became “the” oil to use in cooking. But in the past few years, our views on fats have changed. Suddenly, butter is back, along with highly-touted products like avocado oil, sunflower oil, flaxseed oil and grapeseed oil. But no oil saw as much hype as coconut oil, with claims to reduce weight and waist circumference, strengthen the immune system, give you glowing skin, and even prevent Alzheimer’s disease. So, is coconut oil the miracle cure it’s claimed to be, or has the media buzz overshadowed the science?
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Currently, it is recommended that saturated fats make up less than 10% of your daily caloric intake, in order to prevent heart disease. Coconut oil is 90% saturated fat, compared to butter which is only 60% saturated fat, yet it’s being promoted for weight loss and even its cardio-protective effects. So what makes coconut oil different from other saturated fat sources? Primarily, its chemical make up. Animal sources of saturated fat are largely made up of long chain triglycerides (LCTs), whereas coconut oil has a high percentage (58%) of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs have gained a lot of attention in the scientific community because the body processes them differently from other fats. Their shorter chain length allows them to be taken up directly by the liver and oxidized quickly, which reduces the likelihood that they will be stored as fat in the body.
The research on MCT oils is promising—a 2015 meta-analysis by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics concluded that “replacement of LCTs with MCTs in the diet could potentially induce a modest reduction in body weight and composition.” With this information, the media took off. It was shouted from the rooftops and proclaimed on every “health authority” website that coconut oil is a superfood that helps with weight loss.
Before you dash out to buy coconut oil to add to your diet, consider a few important factors about the research. The majority of research has been conducted on MCT oils, not coconut oil. Coconut oil is only made up of approximately 60% MCTs, and those MCTs are different than the ones found in the MCT oil studied in the research. Therefore, the data currently available cannot simply be extrapolated to coconut oil. Additionally, the studies available are small in sample size and duration. While the research may look promising, more is required to make any concrete statements.
Additional consideration should be given to how coconut oil is used. Coconut oil is a fat—it contains 120 calories per tablespoon. Adding a scoop to your morning coffee or blending it into a smoothie is not going to result in weight loss. It should be used as a substitution for other fat sources in the diet, not an addition.
In terms of heart health, it is recommended to limit saturated fats in the diet because they raise LDL cholesterol, also known as the “bad cholesterol”. Coconut oil, because of its high proportion of MCTs, acts differently than other sources of saturated fats. It still raises LDL cholesterol, but to a lesser extent than animal sourced saturated fats. It also raises HDL cholesterol, known as the “good cholesterol”. Overall, the use of coconut oil appears better for heart health than other sources of saturated fat, such as butter. However, it can’t compete with unsaturated fats such as olive oil or canola oil, which lower LDL cholesterol and raise HDL cholesterol.
If you’re thinking of trying coconut oil, read the label carefully before buying. Virgin (or unrefined) coconut oil is extracted from fresh coconuts, usually using “cold press” technology, and has a mild coconut taste. In contrast, refined coconut oil (also called “expeller pressed”) is extracted from dried coconut flesh, then bleached and deodorized, leaving it bland and flavourless. I recommend virgin (sometimes also called “extra virgin”) coconut oil, as it is less processed. True coconut oil is solid at room temperature; the liquid form found in glass bottles is typically MCT oil. Stay away from hydrogenated coconut oil, as it contains trans fats that will have an unhealthy effect on your cholesterol levels.
Does this mean we should stop using coconut oil? Not necessarily. Coconut oil has some good properties. It is resistant to oxidation, making it a great oil for both cooking and baking. It also has a unique flavour profile that can be an interesting addition to your recipes. But, the health halo surrounding the oil is unsubstantiated by research. Coconut oil is still a saturated fat and as such, intake should be moderate.
THE FACTS ON FAT
Coconut oil may be trendy at the moment, but remember that it is a saturated fat and should be used in moderation. Here is a comparison of the two types of fat:
Solid at room temperature
Increases LDL (bad) cholesterol
Examples: Coconut oil, butter, lard, animal fat found in meat, dairy products, and eggs
Liquid at room temperature
Decreases LDL (bad) cholesterol and increases HDL (good) cholesterol
Examples: Vegetable oils (olive oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, flaxseed oil, etc.)
Unsaturated fat found in nuts and fish
Jen Rawson is a Registered Dietitian from Calgary who works in a private practice specializing in intuitive eating, sports nutrition and gut health. She is passionate about running and travelling, often combining the two at destination races.