The content of this article was originally published on the Fit in a Fat World blog in March 2013. It has been updated in light of the recent news denouncing the consumption of coconut oil.
Which fats and oils are best for your health? The answer isn't cut and dry, but let's clear the air on one oil in particular: coconut oil.
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is extracted from the meat of coconut. It is solid at room temperature and is slow to oxidize, resistant to rancidity, and can last on the shelf for up to two years. It has been used for generations as a primary source of fat for millions of people in heart-healthy tropical countries like the Philippines, India and Thailand, etc., with seemingly no adverse side effects.
Is coconut oil healthy or not?
NOTE: Many commercial coconut oils are refined, bleached and deodorized and contain chemicals used in processing. Make sure that your coconut oil is cold-pressed and organic, which in this case means free of bleaching, deodorizing, refining and hydrogenation (and not just the typical buzzword).
Coconut oil has gotten a bad reputation because it contains a very high amount of saturated fat (almost 90%), which has been linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity, etc. A massive meta-analysis from 2010 however more or less proved that this association was completely bogus (notably because of cherry-picking the results that the funding bodies wanted to present), and it was recently discovered how this myth about dietary fat originally gained legs.
As mentioned in a previous post, saturated fat is only dangerous to human health if consumed disproportionately to unsaturated fats, and if consumed excessively alongside other sugar-laden, highly-processed foods. The saturated fat content of coconut oil is actually beneficial due to its composition of short- and medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) such as butyric acid, lauric acid, capric acid, and caprylic acid, all of which possess anti-microbial and anti-bacterial properties:
- Butyric acid is a very powerful anti-microbial and promotes healthy gut bacteria
- Lauric acid helps fight the flu and infections like herpes
- Capric acid is the main combatant against Candida (yeast infections)
- Caprylic acid is particularly good at battling Staph- and Strep- bacteria.
Long story short, coconut oil can help keep crappy health problems at bay.
**Bonus tip for pregnant/lactating mothers: Virgin coconut oil increases the amount of capric acid in breast milk; this helps to increase levels of good cholesterol (HDL) relative to bad cholesterol (LDL). HDL helps protect children from infections and toxins as infections in children are typically accompanied by high levels of LDL relative to HDL.
MCTs are additionally beneficial due to the way they are handled by the human body. Most saturated fats are made of long-chain fatty acids, which undergo a long digestive process in the body and are therefore not a great energy source (they are better used for cellular function, etc.). MCTs bypass the long lymphatic system route followed by most fats, and can therefore be used as an immediate source of energy for the body. Studies have also shown that MCTs may lead to greater energy expenditure and assist fat and weight loss by promoting healthy functioning of the thyroid gland and by reducing stress on the pancreas, resulting in a more efficient metabolism.
If this weren't enough, coconut oil also:
- Reduces the work load on the liver and prevents the accumulation of body fat
- Helps dissolve kidney stones and treat pancreatitis
- Helps regulate blood sugar thereby preventing and treating diabetes
- Encourages the absorption of calcium while strengthening teeth and preventing decay
- Is also rich in linoleic acid, oleic acid, polyphenols, vitamin E, vitamin K, and iron.
In the end, coconut oil has been linked to many health benefits which include hair health, skin health, increased metabolism, improved weight loss/fat loss, overall immune health, teeth health, bone health, maintenance of healthy cholesterol levels, and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer.
Why did the American Heart Association (AHA) recently declare coconut oil bad for health?
This one is very simple:
The AHA is a non-profit organization. As such, it needs sponsors, and also sells Heart Check Program "Seals of approval" to food companies who want to make their products appear to be healthy. Due to the cost of these seals, only the big, rich corporations can afford them. Notable sponsor include Subway, Cheerios and Bayer. Many "heart-healthy" products include sugar-laden cereals and juices. This is another reminder that everything you read on the front of a food package is 100% marketing and doesn't reflect the health-benefit of a product. The AHA also continues to promote the replacement of saturated fat with omega-6 (inflammatory) polyunsaturated fats in the diet to reduce heart disease risk, but this recommendation is not supported (and is actually refuted) by current research.
Furthermore, the AHA was able to twist the research to have it "prove" their point. This can unfortunately be done with most research out there (which is why I'm not a huge fan of presenting, or debating, the majority of research papers). The funding for the research was biased, the results were based on what research subjects remembered/divulged, and in case you didn't already know: correlation doesn't always equate to causation:
Oils, no matter the type, should not be over-consumed. Oils are highly caloric due to their high fat content and this is why it is important to choose healthy oils when we do use them. Furthermore, don't add coconut oil to your diet unless you are using it to replace an existing dietary fat source: If you add highly-caloric fat to your diet without removing other calories, you will start to gain weight (#thebasicrulesofscience).
Finally, don't forget that the internet is full of bad information, that food labels lie regarding health and that different people will draw different conclusions from the same research based on their own personal biases. Nutritional science is far from perfect, and sometimes you've got to go with your gut- which will function better than most if you include some coconut oil in your diet.