Coconut Oil: Why You Should Question the Hype
Coconut oil is being touted as a cure-all in many health circles—but is it actually beneficial to your health? Coconut has become an increasingly popular “super food.” Carra Richling, from Ornish Lifestyle Medicine, weighs in. She reports after preliminary research claimed that coconut could cure everything from heart disease, to Alzheimer’s and even aid in weight loss, coconut oils, margarines, milks, yogurts and ice creams have flooded the market. Coconut oil is one of the best selling items in natural health and conventional supermarkets today. Some health experts claim that it is “the most versatile food on the planet,” yet other authorities disagree and there is now a coconut oil FDA controversy that has gone viral. Culinary uses, body care and medicinal benefits seem almost never-ending and the list of coconut oil uses keeps on growing. Coconut’s lipid profile is the key to its almost “magical” benefits.
There’s a lack of validated scientific research on the benefits of coconut, so it remains unclear whether or not the popularity is the result of marketing hype. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that there is not enough credible science to support coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The American Heart Association (AHA) does not recommend the use of coconut oil because it is high in saturated fats. The AHA recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 13 grams a day, which is one tablespoon of coconut oil.
What’s in coconut oil?
Coconut oil is extracted from the “meat” inside the hard-shelled fruit of the coconut palm. Made up of 90 percent saturated fat with 13 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, it has one of the highest concentrations of saturated fat of any food—even more than butter! In comparison, butter is about 64 percent saturated fat, and beef fat and lard are only about 40 percent saturated fat.
It’s well known that saturated fat has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol which is a risk factor for heart disease and is linked to higher incidence of heart disease and stroke. Not all saturated fats are the same, however. They differ based on the number of carbon atoms present, and this structural difference affects the impact of the fat on cholesterol levels and our health.
*Butter contains butyric acid, which has 4 carbon atoms.
*Coconut oil and palm kernel oil contain lauric acid with 12 carbon atoms.
*Cow’s milk and other dairy products contain myristic acid with 14 carbon atoms.
*Palm oil and meat contain palmitic acid with 16 carbon atoms.
*Cocoa butter and coconut meat contain stearic acid with 18 carbon atoms
Some promoted research has linked a multitude of health benefits to these easily digestible fats. As stated by NYU Langone’s Medical Center, medium chain triglycerides may be especially advantageous for:
*AIDS Patients – It helps those who are unable to digest fats to gain much needed weight.
*Diabetics – It improves insulin sensitivity and promotes weight loss.
*Overweight/Obese Individuals – It improves body composition (ratio of fat to lean tissue).
*Athletes – It enhances high-intensity and endurance activities.
Likewise, some sources claim that MCFAs can prevent muscle breakdown in critically ill patients such as cancer victims and it can help children with certain types of seizures.
The overall role of lauric acid on cholesterol and health remains unclear.
Myristic acid, which is also a component of coconut oil, is the same type of saturated fat found in beef, dairy and many processed foods. It has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol and risk of vascular disease. Virgin coconut oil is made using controlled temperature methods to retain the greatest amounts of phytosterols, tocotrienols, tocopherols, and other biologic active compounds in contrast to refined coconut oil or copra oil; however, industry standards are lacking.
In summary it may be said that COCONUT OIL health claims are largely overstated. The evidence for lipid benefit and for many health claims about coconut oil is actually quite limited. Much of the suggestion of benefit comes from poorly controlled studies, often of small size and supported by industry. The evidence for an increase in HDL-C with coconut oil comes from animal studies and small, nonrandomized studies of virgin coconut oil. The evidence that coconut oil is super-healthful is not convincing and these claims appear to be more testimonials than clinical evidence.
Neither the American Heart Association (AHA) nor the U.S. government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest that coconut oil is any better or preferable over other saturated fats. Coconut oil, like all saturated fats, should be limited to 7% – 10% of calories because it can increase risk for heart disease, according to the AHA and 2010 Dietary Guidelines. It is therefore not recommend to use coconut oils to improve lipid levels.
Paul R. Block, MD, FACP, FCCP