The Diet Therapist
MIRACLE FOOD or OVER-HYPED?
Coconut Oil: Health Hero or Over-hyped?
A look behind some of the health claims...
Posted by The Diet Therapist, 23rd February 2017
The Wellness sphere has gone completely coco-loco for all things coconut in the past 6 years…Personally I think that the coconut industry has a lot to thank the bloggersphere for. I don’t know if it’s meteoric rise would have been so prolific, were it not for the sudden surge in popularity of keto-friendly Bulletproof coffee, vegan and dairy-free instagrammers. But is the hype surrounding coconut oil really all just clever marketing, or is it actually the miracle-food it’s made out to be?!
What health benefits have been attributed to Coconut Oil?
Advocates argue that coconut oil is a medicinal food that can help speed metabolim and promote weight loss, prevent heart disease, help diabetes, arthritis and other chronic diseases, as well as improving digestion, strengthening the immune system and “curing” Alzheimer’s disease.
A lot of the health benefits attributed to coconut oil are linked with the amount of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs) that it contains. Fatty acids behave differently depending on how long they are and how many double bonds they have (explanation below*). Medium chain fatty aids are always saturated (whole food sources include dairy products, palm kernel oil and coconut oil), whereas longer chain fatty acids can be either saturated (e.g. as in beef, lamb, cheese and coconut oil), or unsaturated (e.g. omega-3 fatty acids in seafood and eggs).
Short and medium chain fatty acids are more water soluble and thus more easily absorbed by the body. They can also be absorbed directly into the portal circulation and transported straight to the liver to be used by the body, whereas longer-chain fatty acids have to be specially broken down, and transported in the body by special lipoprotein particles called “chylomicrons.”
It is this special ability of MCFAs to be rapidly absorbed and burned (oxidised) by the body that causes people to speculate that they can aid weight loss.
Basically – saturated fats and unsaturated fats have different chemical structures; saturated fats have no double bond between molecules. No double bond means no gaps for additional hydrogen molecules to attach to and therefore the fat is “saturated.” Unsaturated fatty acids have one or more double bonds.
“Coconut Oil helps you to lose weight”
it is thought the consumption of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs – a type of fatty acid) can increase fullness (“satiety”) and therefore reduce food intake. A few short-term, small scale feeding studies have shown that MCTs (in place of other oils) may increase fat oxidation and metabolic rate compared to longer-chain fatty acids whilst also increasing satiety (fullness) suggesting that this would help people eat less, as well as reducing abdominal obesity and waist circumference. However, there have been very, very few (small) studies that were controlled, had methodological flaws. Any weight loss or reduction in fat-round-the-middle was very modest (certainly not enough to get really excited about).
Also, the MCTs in coconut oil are not the same as the purified MCT oil used in these studies…while coconut oil is probably the best dietary source of MCTs, only a small percentage of these are the types of MCTs cited in clinical studies – meaning you’d have to eat a massive percentage of coconut oil to get the percentage of the specific MCTs shown to potentially aid weight loss.
“Coconut Oil reduces the risk of Cardiovascular Disease (CVD)”
Although it’s now widely acknowledged that saturated fats are not the dietary devil they were once thought to be, I don’t necessarily believe that people should replace other polyunsaturated fats in their diet with saturated ones, (particularly without reducing refined carbohydrates in their diet). There are some claims that the predominant type of saturated fat in coconut oil Lauric acid may have a different effect on lipid metabolism and cholesterol than other saturated fats. A limited amount of research has found that Lauric acid may raise “good” HDL cholesterol but it has also been round that it may simultaneously raises levels of the more damaging LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol an serum triglycerides (less beneficial for overall cardiovascular health). For coconut oil to be deemed “heart healthy” we would need a lot more evidence on how it affects total cholesterol to HDL ratios…at the moment, there is more evidence supporting the benefits of monosaturated and polyunsaturated fats for heart health (olive oil, avocados, nuts, fatty fish).
Additionally, these benefits on cholesterol (above) were seen when carbohydrates were reduced in the diet – so some of the effects may be due to other factors/variables (e.g. lower refined carbohydrate intake and insulin regulation).
“Coconut Oil boosts your immune system”
The lauric acid content is also why coconut oil is said to have “immune-modulating” effects. Some in vivo and animal studies have suggested that lauric acid and monolaurin (which is a fatty acid derived from lauric acid) – both also present in human breastmilk – have antibacterial and antiviral properties, but human studies are mainly based on the use of these topically (on the skin) which may prevent infections.
“Coconut Oil prevents cognitive decline”
A very small amount of human studies, individual case studies and animal studies have reported that a product mainly comprised of another fatty acid in coconut oil - caprylic acid – may improve cognitive function in patients with Alzheimer’s disease. These are more related to the induction of mild ketogenesis (a state where ketone bodies produced from the breakdown of fats by the liver are used to fuel the body instead of the normal preferred fuel glucose).
In fact there is increasing scientific interest in the potential of ketogenic diets for helping those with a broad range of neurodegenerative disorders, traumatic brain injuries, stroke and epilepsy. In Alzheimer’s for example, the brain loses it’s ability to effectively use glucose for fuel, so ketone bodies may provide an alternative fuel source for brain cells, but the science is still in preliminary stages and doesn’t translate directly to coconut oil necessarily.
“Cooking with Coconut Oil is healthier than Olive Oil”
This idea is based on the fact that different oils and fats have different “smoke points” i.e. the temperature that they begin to oxidise and their delicate destroys the antioxidants causing free radicals to form
The exact smoke point of different oils and fats can vary (based on how they are produced and between different brands), but coconut oil does tend to have a higher smoke point than extra virgin olive oil, butter, and the unrefined versions of more delicate oils such as walnut, flaxseed and safflower. Thus it holds up to high temperatures of hard-core frying without forming potentially toxic compounds.
Having said that, light olive oil (not the extra-version type EVOO) is fine for light frying and baking (if you prefer the taste of olive oil like me) as it has a higher smoke point and is classed as an all purpose cooking oil…just don’t use it for high temperature frying.
I very rarely fry food and tend to use coconut oil in some baking, light olive oil for roasting and EVOO, sesame oil, avocado oil and hempseed oil for salad dressings.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
Lots of bloggers and social media personalities using coconut oil are vegan or plant-based, and coconut oil is obviously a plant-based solid fat rather than animal derived (like butter, lard or ghee). It’s great for vegan baking, or for making truffles or fudge where you need a semi-solid consistency at room temperature. I also love it in thai dishes and raw desserts.
It’s may also be helpful for those who suffer with disorders that may affect the absorption of fats (e.g. Celiac Disease, Crohn’s, Cystic Fibrosis or fat malabsorption) or for athletes who need quickly available, absorbable energy sources. However, I don’t think that using coconut oil in cakes magically makes them “healthy” (sadly), or that it is necessarily a superfood to be used in place of other beneficial unsaturated fats like olive oil.