Coconut oil – Superfood or a Superfad?

Magazine articles, Instagram feeds and celebrity interviews have consistently been awash with the virtues of coconut oil in recent years. It might seem then that I’m late to the party with this post. But a study released in July 2017 by LiveLighter found 75% percent of Australians rated coconut oil as healthy, compared with just 15 percent of dietitians and public health nutritionists. Quite a discrepancy. The power of marketing and celebrity endorsement has well and truly cemented coconut oil as the darling of wellness circles.  But is it a superfood as claimed, or just a superfad?

What is coconut oil?

Coconut oil is oil extracted from the fleshy part of a coconut. Up until its boom in the health industry, it was mainly used in South East Asian cooking. Its mild, nutty flavour lends itself to versatile cooking methods. It’s popular in vegan recipes and used as a replacement for other cooking oils and butter.  Sold in tubs or jars, it’s a white solid at room temperature. It’s also used as a hair and skin treatment, promising soft, silky locks and blemish-free skin.

Coconut oil garnered much of its attention through some seriously powerful marketing and celebrity advocacy (apparently Miranda Kerr has up to 4 teaspoons a day in her green tea). Claims for its use include weight loss, digestion help, reduced risk of dementia, cancer prevention and osteoporosis preventionBut given that coconut oil is around 90% percent saturated fat, it’s a wonder it’s managed to hold its health halo so long.  Even though the British Heart Fountain, American Heart Association and the Australian Heart Foundation recommend against consuming excess saturated fats, i.e. coconut oil, the growth and sales continue to increase. Why is this so?

Let’s talk about fat.

Ok, it’s pretty confusing so I’ll keep the chemistry part short and sweet. There are different types of fat that include monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated. Basically, they all have different structures and behave differently in your body. 

The three main things to know are:

  1. Each type of fat has the same number of calories per gram. 1 gram of ‘good’ fat contains 4 calories and 1 gram of ‘bad’ fat contains 4 calories.
  2. Your body has different uses for all of them.
  3. How much you consume of each type has a different impact on your health over time.

Coconut oil is a saturated fat. You know, like the delicious but not-so-good-for-us butter, fatty cuts of meat, cream and so on. We are advised to limit saturated fats to keep cholesterol levels in check*. So if all the leading health bodies across the world suggest limiting saturated fat intake, why is coconut oil, 90% saturated fat, such a best seller?

MCTs

Coconut oil advocates argue that not all saturated fat is the same. Coconut oil has a unique structure compared to other saturated fats.  It contains Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs). It is argued that MCTs do not affect the body in the same way other saturated fats do. In fact, it’s claimed that MCTs burn excess calories, promote fat oxidation, increase good cholesterol and help exercise performance.

The evidence

There really isn’t much in the way of evidence to support any health claims made by the coconut oil industry. PEN Nutrition summarises coconut oil research as follows:

No clinical studies had health promoting or treatment effects of coconut oil and/or MCTs for the following conditions. Therefore, there is insufficient evidence to recommend coconut oil for treatment of:
  • weight loss
  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • diabetes
  • gastrointestinal disease
  • viral conditions/infections

The good

  • Tastes delicious!
  • Excellent moisturiser for hair and skin
  • Some antioxidant properties in coconut oil, as in all plant products

The cons

  • High in saturated fat and calories. Just one teaspoon contains 117 calories and 14g of total fat per tablespoon, with 12g being saturated fat. The American Heart Association recommends only 13g per day for a heart-healthy lifestyle
  • Yes, coconut oil can raise HDL (good cholesterol). But it also raises LDL (the bad cholesterol) just like other saturated fats, such as butter. A better way to increase your good cholesterol is will oily fish, walnuts, olive oil or flaxseed
  • It’s far more expensive than other oils

So is it a superfood or superad?

Basically, my nutrition advice for any kind of food is: If you like it, eat it. But not too much. Have other stuff too.  So if you like the taste, go ahead and eat it. But eat other oils too, for example, olive oil has plenty of proven health benefits.  As Yvette d’Entremont, contributing scientist at self.com, so beautifully sums it up:

“The TL;DR version is: Coconut oil is goddamn delicious, but for fuck’s sake, you shouldn’t drink it. It’s not going to cure anything, but even with recent reports that coconut oil is just Big Coconut’s way to clog your arteries, you don’t need to throw out your jar of it.”

*There is a small body of evidence recently suggesting that saturated fat from some sources isn’t as bad as originally believed (such as dairy, which contains much-needed Vitamin A and D). But this is still a growing body of research so best to proceed with caution and enjoy these foods in limitation and not having them as the bulk of your diet. But that’s a blog post for another day.

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