This past summer, the sales of coconut oil seemed to skyrocket. Store shelves were empty, waiting to replenish the stock of the newest food trend…or dare I say, fad. To what could this be attributed? Coconut oil has been around longer than anyone reading this and I don’t remember consumers beating the doors down to get their coconut oil, say 1o years ago. What changed?
Digital media is a blessing and a curse. A very well known doctor, who may or not be associated with Oprah, led the charge on his endorsement of coconut oil. Consumers blindly took heed and headed in the direction of better health, a solid fat in a glass jar with a fancy, yet unassuming organic looking label.
I was baffled by this, as were other dietitians, who often wonder why those looking to improve their nutrition would rather listen to advice from their TV, than from a professional nutritionist. I’m not offended, in fact I am guilty as charged for occasionally tuning in to see his latest nutrition fascination. I am also baffled as to why we don’t see these same people clearing the produce section of the antioxidant gems that are apparently bypassed to get to aisle 2.
Then, I started seeing those who promote health also start to lean in the direction of coconut oil. I often had visions of holding out a huge red STOP sign and asking them why they are following this advice.
If you are concerned with the type of fat you are consuming, think about this. Coconut oil is 92% saturated fat. My husband likes to refer to it as coconut Crisco when he sees it in the grocery store. It does resemble this fat from my childhood.
Coconut oil is different from other oils in the type of triglycerides it contains. While most oils contain long chain triglycerides (LCT), coconut and palm kernel oils contain medium chain triglycerides (MCT). While many will tout the ability of MCT to aid in weight loss and even help reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s, the research is inconclusive.
The science is in the way that MCT are metabolized. MCT, such as coconut oil, are transported directly to the liver for oxidation. This makes them an ideal fat for use in parenteral nutrition in the clinical setting, but does this same science translate into helping the normal, everyday diet? Some studies have shown that the fast rate of oxidation leads to enhance energy expenditure.
A 2002 review indicated that MCT may have an effect on weight loss and satiety with many of the studies up to that date being animal studies. However, a 2010 study showed that satiety and intake did not change when fed a diet of MCT over LCT. A 2008 study found a modest advantage of MCT over olive oil, but even the researchers described their findings as “conservative”. They could not attribute their finding to a definitive source and the sample size was not large enough to extrapolate for an entire population. They also concluded that coconut oil and olive oil produced many of the same benefits, so this was a limitation in their study.
Those who are advocates for the consumption and use of coconut oil will only inform the public of the research that leads them in their direction, likewise for the opponents.
Images line the web with the amazing uses for coconut oil. Websites that lure their potential customers into believing that coconut oil improves or reverses Alzheimer’s disease and improves Parkinson’s disease. That is just plain irresponsible. There is little evidence to support that coconut oil can reverse the symptoms of either disease, but we can always be hopeful. The magic may not come from the coconut oil itself, but from a ketogenic diet, which has had positive effects in other disorders such as epilepsy. The National Institute on Aging is currently conducting a study on coconut oil in Alzheimer’s disease. The study is scheduled to end in September 2015.
The amount of research dealing with coconut oil directly in terms of health benefits is not extensive. Consumers should be mindful of claims they hear and remember that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. They should also consider the fact that research is constantly changing. Remember when they told us that eggs were bad for us? People still believe that.
Often times, the media will read a small portion of a research study, the abstract, and rewrite the finding without actually reading the limitations that the researchers themselves identify, such as non-statistically significant findings or small sample sizes.
The truth is this, coconut oil is high in saturated fat. Regardless of whether or not your believe that saturated fat is detrimental to your health, it should be limited. Coconut oil, or other tropical oils, should not be the only oil in your diet. A diet varied in fats is a healthy diet. Different fats have the ability to alter cholesterol levels in the body in differing ways.
There is a lot of passion behind coconut oil from both sides of the argument and on whether or not it can offer all the health benefits that people wish for. I wonder if there would be as much passion behind a famous doctor telling everyone that fresh fruits and vegetables and exercise are even better for your health than coconut oil. Maybe that just doesn’t sound as sexy.
Poppitt, SD, Strik, CM, MacGibbon AKH, McArdle, BH, Budgett, SC, McGill, AT. Fatty acid chain length, postprandial satiety and food intake in lean men. Physiology & Behavior.2010;101(1): 161-7.
Physiological effects of medium-chain triglycerides: potential agents in the prevention of obesity. J Nutr 2002;132:329–332.,
St-Onge MP, Bosarge A. Weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than does olive oil. Am J Clin Nutr 2008;87:621–626
NIH. NIA. http://www.nia.nih.gov/alzheimers/clinical-trials/coconut-oil-alzheimers-disease (accessed February 15, 2015).