Coconut oil – healthy or hype?
Coconut oil has become hugely popular in the last few years, with a whole host of claimed health benefits and some people adding large quantities into their everyday diet. Others think it’s just another fad, and since it is a saturated fat are naturally wary about consuming it. So what makes coconut oil different from other saturated fats? And should we be eating more of it?
Are saturated fats harmful?
The conventional view on saturated fats for many years has been that they are harmful to health, particularly cardiovascular health, and we should limit their intake. This is based on evidence from studies comparing saturated fats to unsaturated fats. Coconut oil contains a high level of saturated fatty acids, so under this basic classification it is considered unhealthy. However, we now know that the individual fatty acids within saturated fats have different properties within the body - therefore classifying fat as ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’ based only on its level of saturation can be misleading. For example, coconut oil and butter are both saturated fats but when it comes to the effect on LDL cholesterol, coconut oil shows benefits comparable to the unsaturated fatty acids found in olive oil.
One benefit of saturated fats is that the structure is very stable, so they don’t get damaged at high temperatures. This makes coconut oil a good choice for cooking, whereas the more delicate unsaturated fats are best for health when consumed cold.
Saturated fats in coconut oil
If we look at the individual fatty acids in coconut oil we find they are somewhat different to other saturated fats. The majority of the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil are Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFAs) as opposed to the Long Chain fatty acids (LCFAs). The chain length relates to the number of carbon atoms in the chemical structure, but the main point to understand is that MCFAs act very differently in the body than LCFAs.
Medium Chain Fatty Acids are smaller in size and more easily broken down in the body than the longer chain varieties. In fact, the liver is able to process MCFAs very quickly as a source of energy - using them more like carbohydrates instead of storing them like other fats. This means MCFAs are less likely to lead to weight gain, and are becoming a popular carbohydrate-free fuel for athletes.
In addition, the main MCFAs in coconut oil are lauric acid, capric acid and caprylic acid – these have strong antibacterial, antifungal, anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties which provide many of the health benefits that we have read about.
Studies on the benefits of coconut oil
Studies on the effects of coconut oil run into the thousands, with benefits ranging from improving cardiovascular health to being more effective than DEET at repelling insects. When looking at research it’s important to note that even those conducted on humans may not provide conclusive evidence – some studies for example only look at people of a certain age group, or people who already suffer with a particular medical condition. So although coconut oil has been shown to enhance memory in older populations, it may not have the same benefits for everyone and this is one of the reasons people get confused by conflicting study results.
Some of the reported benefits include:
- positive effects on cholesterol and blood pressure
- anti-inflammatory action helps conditions such as arthritis
- increases energy levels and metabolism, and helps with weight loss
- boosts the immune system
- improves insulin response and may have beneficial effects on type 2 diabetes
- supports gut health through positive action on the bowel flora
- positive effects on cognitive function, including memory and Alzheimer’s
- healing and moisturizing properties for dry and inflamed skin conditions
Should we be eating more coconut oil?
The important thing to remember is that while coconut oil certainly seems a better choice than some other fats, it is not the only oil we should be including in our diet and we shouldn’t be adding it at the expense of other macronutrients. As well as ensuring that we are eating sufficient protein and carbohydrate each day, we also need to consume good amounts of the mono and polyunsaturated fats without increasing our overall fat consumption too much. As nutritional therapists we look at people as individuals, and it is true that some people do better on a higher fat/lower carb diet, which is why an individually tailored plan may not be in line with the published guidelines for the general population – but that doesn’t mean increased fat is right for everyone.
It’s fantastic if you’re able to get a personalised nutrition plan from a therapist, but if that’s not possible then simply using coconut fat in place of other cooking fats would be a great start.
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