Those who reach for olive oil when searing or sautéing likely feel a bit behind the times when they hear so many people talking about how healthy coconut oil is. With so many celebrities and health bloggers praising the fat, it almost makes you want to swap it for every stick of butter and bottle of liquid oil in your kitchen. Before doing anything too drastic, it’s worth taking a closer look at coconut oil.
As with animal products, the fat in coconut oil is predominately saturated. While most of us think all of these fats are essentially the same in how they interact with our bodies, this isn’t completely true. In addition to classifying fats as saturated or unsaturated, scientists further break them down into short, medium, or long-chain triglycerides. The reason it’s important to make this distinction is because each type is metabolized differently.
Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides. A review published in the Journal of Nutrition explains these fatty acids are more readily absorbed into the body and processed by the liver. The real attention-grabber from this research, though, is the team explained medium-chain triglycerides break down in a way that can increase energy expenditure and prevent weight gain. And this, in a nutshell, is why so many people have been going nuts for coconut oil.
Time to dig deeper. Studies looking specifically at coconut oil’s role in weight management are sparse, but one 2009 example has gotten a lot of attention. For this trial, 40 women took part in a 12-week program that included nutrition counseling, an exercise program, and diet supplementation in the form of either coconut oil or soybean oil. At the end of the study, both groups lowered their BMI, but only the coconut oil group enjoyed a smaller waist circumference.
This makes coconut oil sound like some sort of dream product for weight loss, but we need to be a little more skeptical. For starters, this study only involved 40 subjects and for a very short, 12-week period. Secondly, the average reduction in waist circumference was a puny 1.4 centimeters. There’s also no way to know exactly what each individual was eating or how much effort they expended during exercise. Perhaps those given soybean oil put forth less effort when working out. Maybe some of the coconut oil group started eating more avocado and kale. We just don’t know.
In order to see weight-loss results that really mean something, it’s usually more helpful to look at overall food choices for a longer period of time. One review published in 2016 did just that with the Mediterranean diet. The authors found sticking with this eating plan promoted long-term weight loss better than a low-fat diet and similar to low-carb and diabetes-specific diets. Furthermore, the authors found the Mediterranean way of eating to be the most beneficial for heart health, which brings us to our next topic for coconut oil.
Though tons of coconut oil advocates talk about how the fat can help out your heart, they usually aren’t looking at the whole picture. The same 2009 study also reported the women who consumed coconut oil experienced a boost in HDL (good) cholesterol, but their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels also increased. To get a more reliable answer, one group of researchers analyzed a larger sampling of studies. In the review, they concluded unsaturated fats are more beneficial for heart health than coconut oil.
Again, sample size and duration matter. If we look at the research about the benefits of olive oil, which has been much more widely studied, we see results that are harder to refute. One review took a comprehensive look at how olive oil impacts health, finding a clear link between olive oil consumption and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. Bear in mind, researchers drew their conclusions from multiple studies with thousands of subjects.
Lastly, we have to address the rumors about how consuming coconut oil can help cure Alzheimer’s disease. The hype started when Dr. Mary Newport, a pediatrician, released a book where she cited coconut oil as the food responsible for improving her husband’s symptoms. But Berkeley Wellness points out this book ignores how widely Alzheimer’s disease can vary from person to person. What’s more, the story explains there just isn’t research indicating coconut oil can prevent or minimize this type of cognitive decline.
If it’s beauty treatments you’re after, coconut oil may actually be a smart choice. There are a surprising number of uses, which can also cut down on how many products you buy.
In the end, you won’t find many health experts telling you to start using coconut oil in place of canola or olive oil. Still, Harvard Health Publications says there’s nothing wrong with using coconut oil from time to time, particularly if you enjoy the taste. Since some varieties can be highly processed, Today’s Dietitian recommends reaching for virgin coconut oil. And if you don’t have any particular affinity for this popular fat, sticking with your standard cooking oils is the way to go.
Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec