By Natalie Rizzo
Coconut oil has grown in popularity tremendously lately. It’s said to be a “miraculous” oil with many health benefits as well as being helpful for hair, skin, and lips. Vegans are using it as a substitute for butter when baking. To find out where all the support for these benefits are coming from, I did a simple google search using the terms “coconut oil”. A promotional site popped up first with an article titled “10 Proven Health Benefits of Coconut Oil.” Here I found claims that coconut oil has strong medicinal qualities, can help burn fat, and stave off hunger(1). Another piece, titled “Health Benefits of Coconut Oil”, stated that it benefits “hair care, skin care, stress relief, cholesterol level maintenance, weight loss, immune function, proper digestion and regulates metabolism” (2). No wonder people think of coconut oil as a wonder food! However, scouring the scientific research lead me to a very different conclusion. Here’s what I found:
Cholesterol: One of the most consistent claims that Internet sites make about coconut oil is that it lowers cholesterol. Despite this, I found only a handful of studies that even consider the association between coconut oil and cholesterol, and the methods used as well as the findings do not paint a clear picture.. One study measured cholesterol levels after 45 days of coconut oil consumption, and found a decrease in total cholesterol and LDL (the ‘bad’ cholesterol) and an increase in HDL (the ‘good’ cholesterol) (3). Sounds good, but the subjects in this study were rats, making the results a very far stretch for humans. A human study tested the effect of adding coconut flakes to cereal in 21 adult with moderately raised . After 14 weeks, the researchers found a decrease in total cholesterol and LDL (4). These results seem promising, but the inclusion of only 21 subjects, use of coconut flakes (rather than oil), the absence of diet control, and the absence of similar studies finding the same results makes it premature to make a cholesterol lowering claim. Another notable study showed a decrease in total cholesterol when coconut oil was added to the diet. But, all the subjects already had high cholesterol and were on a cholesterol lowering medication and a low-fat diet in tangent with adding coconut oil to the diet. There is no way to know if the coconut oil, the medication, or the low-fat diet caused the cholesterol decrease (5). Lastly, one study showed that healthy men actually had an increase in total cholesterol when consuming a diet of 30% fat from coconut oil as compared to soya-bean fat (6). Clearly, these studies were all very different from each other and the results were mixed. So in answer to my original question: Will coconut oil help lower cholesterol? I conclude that with all the conflicting studies and results, there’s very little evidence to suggest that coconut oil can help lower cholesterol.
Weight Loss: The research on coconut oil and weight loss is also confusing. Many leaps have been made in order to state that “coconut oil will aid in weight loss.” Let’s start with the basic facts. The main fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a saturated fat and a medium chain fatty acid (MCFA). It is believed that these MCFA increase energy expenditure and fat oxidation (otherwise known as fat breakdown) (7). However, these increases are likely to be very small, and studies have concluded that the rise in energy expenditure associated with MCFA does not translate into lower body fat (8). Furthermore, these studies did not all use coconut oil as their source of medium chain fatty acids. I could only find one study that measured the effect of coconut oil on weight in obese women. After a 12-week period of coconut oil consumption, both BMI and waist circumference decreased in these women, although minimally (9). And once again, there is a caveat. The women were also following a reduced calorie diet and walking 50 minutes per day, so it’s impossible to tell what caused the weight loss.
Healthier than other oils: With all the conflicting evidence on coconut oil, the potential health benefits are unclear, to say the least. Meanwhile, there is a great deal of evidence that olive oil, as part of a Mediterranean diet, is one of the most beneficial oils to health. The Mediterranean diet has been proven to reduce cardiac death, heart attacks, and stroke (10, 11). One component of the Mediterranean diet is the use of moderate servings of olive oil in cooking. So when in doubt, reach for the olive oil rather than coconut oil, and don’t expect miracles.
1) http://authoritynutrition.com/top-10-evidence-based-health-benefits-of-coconut-oil/ Accessed 8/20/14
2) https://www.organicfacts.net/organic-oils/organic-coconut-oil/health-benefits-of-coconut-oil.html Accessed 8/20/14
3) Nevin, K.G., Rajamohan, T. (2004). Beneficial effects of virgin coconut oil on lipid parameters and in vitro LDL oxidation. Clinical Biochemistry. 37 (9), 830-5.
4) Trinidad, T.P., Loyola, A.S., Mallillin, A.C., Valdez, D.H., Askali, F.C….Masa, D.B. (2004). The cholesterol-lowering effect of coconut flakes in humans with moderately raised serum cholesterol. Journal of Medicinal Food. 7 (2), 136-40.
5) McKenney, J.M., Proctor, J.D., Wright, J.T., Kolinski, R.J., Eiswick, R.K., Coaker, J.S., (1995). The effect of supplemental dietary fat on plasma cholesterol levels in lovastatin-treated hypercholesterolemic patients. Pharmacotherapy. 15 (5), 565-72.
6) Mendis, S., Kumarasunderam, R. (1990). The effect of daily consumption of coconut fat and soya-bean fat on plasma lipids and lipoproteins of young normolipidaemic men. British Journal of Nutrition. 63 (3). 547-52.
7) St-Onge, M.P., Ross, R., Parsons, W.D., Jones, P.J. (2003). Medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men. Obesity Research & Clinical Practice. 11 (3). 395-402.
8) Roynette, C.F., Rudkowska, I., Nakhasi, D.K., Jones, P.J. (2008). Structured medium and long chain triglycerides show short-term increases in fat oxidation, but no changes in adiposity in men. Nutrition, Metabolism and Cardiovascular Diseases. 18 (4). 298-305.
9) Assuncao, M.L., Ferreira, H.S., dos Santos, A.F., Cabral, C.R., Florencio, T.M. (2009). Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity. Lipids. 44 (7). 593-601. doi: 10.1007/s11745-009-3306-6
10) Estruch, R., Ros, E., Salas-Salvado, J., Covas, M.I., Corella, D., Aros, F…Martinez-Gonzalez, M.A. (2013). Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. New England Journal of Medicine. 368 (14). 1279-90. 10.1056/NEJMoa1200303
11) Chiuve, S.E., Fung, T.T., Rexrode, K.M., Spiegelman, D., Manson, J.E., Stampfer, M.J. Albert, C.M. (2011). Adherence to a low-risk, healthy lifestyle and risk of sudden cardiac death among women. Journal of the American Medical Association. 306 (1). 62-9. doi: 10.1001/jama.2011.907