Everything You Need To Know About Coconut Oil – A Naturopath Explains
Let me separate the myths from the facts. In this article we’ll explore which coconut oil is good for, why and how to use it. And on the flip side, we’ll discuss which coconut oil isn’t good for you, why it’s not good for and when you shouldn’t use it.
I don’t think there is a food quite as debated about as coconut oil. A quick google search brings up a multitude of articles with differing opinions, some authors claiming coconut oil is a miracle cure-all, some claiming it is the devil incarnate.
The arguments about coconut oil bring along with it the debate of recent years, about the links between heart disease, saturated fat and cholesterol.
It’s incredibly difficult to unravel this mystery because there is a limited amount of research on coconut oil (especially in comparison to olive oil), and a lot of the claims made on the benefits of coconut oil are somewhat hypothetical, based around knowledge of its constituents such as the type of saturated fat, lauric acid. The claims made for coconut oil’s health benefits can at times be outlandish, one article I found listed a whole 200 benefits.
But if you look, there is research.
Compare the amount of research available on olive oil to that of coconut oil and you can understand why mainstream dietary recommendations are still not sold on this tropical oil, however in the last few years there has been some promising studies emerging that demonstrate some of its potential benefits, such as increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol and reducing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
The frequent recommendation for large doses of coconut oil as a dietary supplement is more concerning than the multitude of topical uses often recommended in the blogosphere…
Lets dive in to explore everything you need to know about coconut oil.
Traditional uses of coconut oil across the globe
The coconut has a strong history of use as a food in tropical and subtropical regions, both as food and medicine. Coconuts are highly valued in Ayurvedic (Indian) medicine as a form of treatment for various complaints, with records of this dating back at least 4000 years. Looking back at the health of cultures who have been consuming coconut products could give us an indication of the long term effects of coconut oil. However, studies looking at the correlation between coconut oil consumption and heart disease find conflicting results.
Polynesian societies rely heavily on coconut as a food source, and many advocates of coconut refer to these cultures when debating the impact that coconut can have on health, in particular heart disease. Polynesians are usually found to have low rates of heart disease, despite having high LDL cholesterol. They are however very physically active and traditionally non smokers, factors which cut the rates of heart disease considerably.
A study comparing the cause of death between two population groups, Hong Kong and Singapore attributed the higher rate of heart disease related deaths in Singapore to be due to a higher consumption of saturated fats from animal, coconut and palm oil.
In Sri Lanka the rural populations who eat more coconut oil than city dwellers, have lower rates of heart disease, however they also eat more fruit and vegetables and are more physically active.
Another study comparing a group of healthy patients and a group of people with heart disease (both groups were of similar age) in India found no correlation between the consumption of coconut oil and saturated fat and the rate of heart disease.
Whenever claims about certain diets or food groups are made based on their historical use, it’s important to think about whether that context is relevant to today.
A historical diet consumed alongside a modern lifestyle of working at a computer and sitting in traffic all day is not going to product the same benefits. Similarly, a traditional food that is consumed alongside a standard western diet may not be as beneficial as it once was.
Traditional diets and dietary recommendations cannot be inserted into a western lifestyle (one with limited physical activity) and the same results expected.
Make sure it’s virgin coconut oil
Most coconut oils that you will see for sale in health food shops are likely to be ‘virgin’ coconut oil, and this is the form of coconut oil that provides the most health benefits. Virgin coconut oil is extracted from the fresh coconut kernel via a controlled temperature, and the beneficial nutrients – tocotrienols, squalene, tocopherols and sterols – are preserved. It’s important to check that this is the type of coconut oil you’re using as the other form available does not have these benefits.
The other form is copra, which is extracted from the dried kernel with no temperature control and is often bleached, processed and deodorised. Copra and virgin coconut oil have the same fatty acid profile (more detail on this below) however studies comparing copra to virgin coconut oil show that copra can increase risk factors for heart disease, whereas virgin coconut oil can lower them, most likely due to the preservation of the beneficial nutrients.
To give you an idea how bad copra is, it’s what scientists often feed to rats to induce fatty liver and insulin resistance. Now there is a much greater understanding of the nature of MCT, and the difference between copra and virgin coconut oil.
For context, lets discuss the components of coconut oil
In the past, coconut oil was strongly advised against due to it’s high (93%) saturated fat content. Saturated fat can be composed of different types of fats (referred to as fatty acids or triglycerides) and the different types have different effects in the body. The two forms found in food are medium chain triglycerides/fatty acids and long chain triglycerides/fatty acids.
Short chain fatty acids are mostly produced by the bacteria in the digestive system from vegetables.
Coconut oil is mostly composed of lauric acid (49%), which is a medium chain fatty acid (MCT). The shorter the MCT (6 is the shortest MCT), the easier it is broken down and absorbed, and lauric acid is the longest MCT (12 fatty acids in a strand). Coconut oil has a total of 64% MCT and 28% LCT, and 8% unsaturated fatty acids.
In detail, the fatty acid composition of coconut oil is:
caprylic acid C-8:0 (8%), capric acid C-10:0 (7%), lauric acid C-12:0 (49%), myristic acid C-14:0 (18%), palmitic acid C-16:0 (8%), stearic acid C-18:0 (2%), oleic acid C-18:1 (6%), linoleic acid C-18:2 (2%).
It’s the whole diet that matters, just adding in a superfood or two isn’t going to produce any miraculous cures.
Can coconut oil help you lose weight?
Can eating coconut oil help you to lose weight? According to a lot of bloggers, it can, however it doesn’t seem that the available research supports this solidly. There is some research showing that the type of fat that coconut oil contains – medium chain triglycerides/fatty acids (MCT) – can help weight loss in the short term, however there isn’t proof that this same effect can be achieved when consuming coconut oil in its natural form, and it doesn’t seem to work as well long term.
Fats are composed of a chain of various lengths of fatty acids. The length of these chains determines how they are metabolised in the body. Coconut oil is composed predominately of medium-chain fatty acids (MCT), a type of fat which is considered to increase energy expenditure of the body more so than other types of fats and improve satiety, reducing total calorie consumption.
Most claims for the use of coconut oil as a tool for weight loss are based on studies done on isolated MCT.
Can we extrapolate the benefits of MCT onto coconut oil? It is possible, but not for sure. Most MCT blends contain a higher proportion of C8 and C10 (coconut oil is higher in C12) and no unsaturated fatty acids and long chain fatty acids (which coconut oil contains).
- Medium-chain fatty acids (MCT) contain 6-12 carbon fatty acids, are relatively water soluble and are absorbed directly into the liver where they can undergo oxidation (used as energy).
- Long-chain fatty acids (LCT) have 12 carbon fatty acids and are transported via chylomicrons into the lymphatic system where they can be taken up into the adipose tissue (stored as fat).
The beneficial effect of MCT for weight loss has only been studied in the short term, so whether we can see sustainable changes in body composition from the inclusion of the MCT rich coconut oil in our diets is uncertain.
Just consuming MCT on their own will not usually result in weight loss, especially if MCT or coconut oil is taken as a supplement without any other diet or lifestyle changes. If it is included in the diet as a replacement for other types of trans – fats and hydrogenated oils then weight loss may occur more easily. At least in the short term.
Studies analysing the metabolic effects of MCT are usually structured by splitting groups into those consuming MCT, those consuming another type of fat such as LCT from animal fat, and a mono or poly-unsaturated fat such as corn or soy oil. The energy expenditure is mostly found to be greater in the groups given MCT (meaning it will boost your metabolism), but most studies only assessed this over a short period. One study found this effect only lasted for about 7 days, and stopped after 14 days.
Whether MCT and coconut oil affects body composition or not is a different matter. Some studies have looked at MCT intake and body composition and found minimal effect over long term. An animal study comparing MCT to lard, corn oil and fish oil found the best effect in body composition over a period of 6 months to be from fish oil, not MCT. The overall body weight stayed the same in all groups, however the fish oil group had a slight reduction in calorie consumption and were found to have less total body fat, less intra-abdominal fat, and less insulin resistance than all other groups.
Consuming MCT instead of LCT in one meal usually results in less calorie consumption in the following meals. Hypothetically this should result in weight loss when continued over a period of time, however there are insufficient long term studies to confirm this, and there are conflicting studies which show this to not be the case. It seems that the best effects are observed in males and those who are overweight.
Coconut oil’s antimicrobial properties
Another reported benefit of coconut oil is it’s antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties, mainly attributed to the constituents lauric acid and capric acid. It is thought that these MCTs disrupt the cell membrane of the microbe, resulting in its death.
Lauric acid is considered to be the main component of coconut oil that provides the antimicrobial property, as it converts into a potent antimicrobial chemical called monolaurin. Monolaurin has been shown to have strong effect against various bacteria and fungus when studied in vitro, however it is not properly understood whether this same mechanism can be applied to the ingestion of coconut oil.
Applied topically, coconut oil may also be helpful in the treatment of candida albicans infections. Added bonus – coconut oil is also soothing to dry and inflamed skin.
Other studies looking at the isolated components lauric acid or monolaurin found benefit against various microorganisms including Staphylococcus aureus and Propionibacterium acnes (the bacteria responsible for causing acne).
Coconut oil is also unlikely to promote antibiotic resistance in the organisms, so opting for a treatment such coconut oil for a first option could be a good idea.
Protect against antibiotic damage with coconut oil: Some antibiotics are harmful to the liver and kidneys, however a study on rats found that virgin coconut oil at a dose of 600 mg/kg can help to protect against this damage.
Is coconut oil good for your hair?
While limited, there is some evidence to suggest that coconut oil can be effective when used with some essential oils as a spray for head lice. The study compared the use of a spray containing coconut oil, anise oil and ylang ylang oil to a chemical spray. Both sprays were effective in treating 92.3% and 92.2% of the children.
Coconut oil can help to prevent hair damage and strengthen the hair shaft, and is able to penetrate the hair shaft more than other types of oil which may provide a strengthening effect to the hair.
It is frequently used as a hair tonic and conditioner, however it can cause skin irritation if not washed out thoroughly for some people (Ashique, 2014).
Can coconut oil help to heal wounds?
Rat studies have found that virgin coconut oil has a wound healing effect when applied topically for 10 days. Apply virgin coconut oil to minor wounds to help them to heal more effectively.
Is coconut oil good for dental health?
To try coconut oil pulling, put a tablespoon of coconut oil in your mouth and swishing it around for up to 20 minutes may sound like a strange thing to do for some people, but this is a health practice that has been in existence for many years.
Coconut oil may not be palatable for everyone, but it has the advantage of low allergic reactions, does not stain teeth and has minimal lingering taste.
The traditional practice of oil pulling to improve dental health used sesame oil and sunflower oil, however with recent awareness of the benefits of lauric acid as an anti-microbial agent the use of coconut oil for oil pulling has become more popular. Until recently there was limited evidence to support this, but preliminary studies have found that oil pulling with coconut oil can decrease plaque and gingivitis after 7 days and the effects increased with time. Another theory proposed by the authors of the same study is that, coconut oil reacts with saliva to produce a soap like reaction (saponification) which helps to reduce the adhesion of plaque.
Is coconut oil good for brain health?
Alzheimer’s disease is a condition that causes a great deal of distress for its sufferers and their loved ones, however there is very little that can be done for it. Fortunately, MCT and virgin coconut oil have shown promise as a tool to reduce the progression of Alzheimer’s disease by improving energy delivery to the brain, supplying some beneficial compounds to prevent the development of the condition, and possibly by reducing the risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease such as diabetes and obesity.
The use of coconut oil as a tool for helping brain health and Alzheimer’s disease conflicts with our understanding of previous recommendations for the condition – a low saturated fat diet. Obesity and insulin resistance are risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease, and coconut oil was considered to cause these issues. However, as discussed in this article the use of virgin coconut oil does not seem to produce these effects.
As you’ve already learnt, coconut oil contains 64% MCT, a type of fat which is quickly absorbed and metabolised. One of the processes that takes place in this is the production of ketones, something that the brain can easily use as a fuel source. For people with memory problems such as Alzheimer’s disease, coconut oil may be helpful in this way. Most of the studies in this area have been using extracts of the MCT caprylic acid which is only present at around 7% in coconut oil.
As a supplement, coconut oil may not be able to produce the same results that caprylic acid on its own can for Alzheimer’s disease, but the use of coconut oil in cooking may be helpful in early stages and as a aid for prevention, and supplementing with MCT (under the guidance of a health care practitioner) may be more useful in mid-late stages of the condition.
Is coconut oil good for thryoid health?
Another of the claims made in favour of coconut oil are its ability to help under active thyroid. This is unfortunately not backed by any research, however anecdotal evidence is prevalent. It is most likely that the benefits of coconut oil for the thyroid are in replacing soy oil and hydrogenated polyunsaturated oils such as processed foods with wholefoods cooked in coconut oil, and in the appetite reducing and metabolism stimulating effects of the medium chain triglycerides (compared to long chain triglyceride).
The oft-quoted physiologist Ray Peat attributes the surge of hormonal conditions in westernised societies to the increased use of vegetable oils, and the oxidative stress that the consumption of these oils place on our body.
Would I recommend someone to use coconut oil as a method of improving their thyroid function? That’s complicated – under active thyroid function can cause weight issues, and coconut oil taken in addition to your diet is a significant extra source of calories. If used instead of other forms of oils and fats it may be beneficial, especially if the rest of the diet and exercise levels are also addressed. There is concern from some that coconut oil can possibly increase one’s risk for heart disease and can cause an elevation of cholesterol levels, the same issues that thyroid disease can also cause possibly cause. Elevated cholesterol will unlikely cause an immediate threat to heart health unless accompanied by other risk factors, and as virgin coconut oil predominantly raises the beneficial HDL cholesterol this may be less of a concern.
The biggest concern is the promise of coconut oil being a ‘cure-all’ for thyroid function.
Thyroid disease can be due to various causes such as nutritional deficiencies (e.g. iodine, tyrosine, selenium), physical trauma, infections and heavy metal toxicity, which taking coconut oil would not address.
It may be helpful, but the research doesn’t appear to support this claim. If you are not at a high risk of heart disease, it may be worthwhile trialling the introduction of coconut oil into your diet whilst working with your health practitioner to see if it provides a benefit to you.
Is coconut oil good for your heart health?
There is still some debate as to whether coconut oil is beneficial for heart health or not, and the quantity of research is still insufficient to have a clear answer either way. The research that shows the benefits of coconut oil for the heart are only present when the coconut oil is ‘virgin’, and the studies that show a negative effect on the heart are most often using copra or an unspecified form of coconut oil.
Virgin coconut oil does raise cholesterol, but mostly the HDL (good) cholesterol. This effect is only evident when virgin coconut oil is used, as non-virgin coconut oil can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol.
One of the beneficial compounds that is retained in virgin coconut oil is the phenols. These have high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory which are healing to the artery walls. The phenols are also responsible for balancing cholesterol levels – increasing the beneficial HDL and lowering LDL and VLDL.
As far as the research goes, it’s promising.
The issue however is the quantity of research is not enough to instigate a widespread recommendation of coconut oil use, especially when you compare the available research to that of olive oil and other omega-3 rich foods.
The risk factors that contribute towards heart disease such as obesity are unlikely to be sufficiently improved by coconut oil consumption to have a benefit, as discussed previously.
Lets talk coconut oil and cholesterol
There is much debate in the blogosphere about cholesterol in recent years, and it seems that there is evidence on both sides to support either argument. In case you have not been following this, I have simplified it for you below.
The ‘cholesterol is evil’ argument goes along these lines:
High cholesterol levels are a major risk factor for heart disease. To reinforce, LDL cholesterol is bad and HDL is good.
Heart disease is caused when a complicated chemical and immune process takes place at a roughened and damaged part of the artery wall (such as the bends and kinks). This process essentially involves layers of foamy cholesterol being put down on the artery wall like a band-aid, however the longer it goes on it becomes harder and more dangerous (as bits can slough off and form a clot).
And after this, the opinions differ.
Consuming cholesterol from fatty foods in our diet is considered to be a driving factor of this process, the worst type of fat coming from saturated fatty acids which increases the “bad” cholesterol LDL.
In order to reduce our risk of heart disease we should therefore not consume saturated fat and lower our cholesterol levels in our blood by taking medications to do so.
The ‘cholesterol isn’t the enemy’ argument goes something like this:
Dietary fat isn’t as bad as we once thought, and what we should be more concerned about is the excess consumption of sugar. When we consume too much sugar and processed carbohydrates this causes insulin resistance, which can increase inflammation and make our arteries more susceptible to damage, which means more cholesterol is going to be laid down in the manner described above. The difference is that if we have healthy arteries, cholesterol isn’t going to be so much of a problem.
Eating saturated fat may mean our cholesterol levels are higher, but this doesn’t always equate to increased risk of heart disease.
Low fat diets and avoidance of saturated fats has meant that we now consume more sugar, refined carbohydrates, and hydrogenated vegetable oils which increase inflammation and are worse for our heart health than a high fat diet.
As I said earlier, I simplified those arguments, and there are many complicating factors when looking at risk factors for heart disease.
Similar recommendations from both groups are in consuming a higher intake of omega-3 fatty acids (such as from seafood), plenty of vegetables and in the importance of addressing other risk factors for heart disease such as stress, obesity and high blood pressure.
Coconut oil on its own may not provide a sufficient benefit, but replacing hydrogenated and trans oils with coconut oil and consuming it alongside a healthy diet is a good idea.
And for the negative aspects of coconut oil…
So far we have mostly covered the beneficial effects of coconut oil, but there are some negative aspects to coconut oil.
Make sure you eat your vegetables. A 2015 study found that mice fed lauric acid (the main MCT in coconut oil) had an increase in the Th17 immune cells which contribute towards digestive inflammation, autoimmunity and can cause your immune system to attack your nerve cells. This effect was cancelled out by the consumption of short chain fatty acids alongside the oil. We can do this by consuming a diet rich in vegetables.
While this information sounds a bit scary, it comes back to the key point – eat your vegetables. Also, don’t overdo it on the coconut oil, maybe stick to two tablespoons a day at most.
Coconut oil and allergies
Many people opt for coconut as an alternative to dairy, however it’s possible to be reactive to coconut products. While the rates of coconut allergy are generally low, and often considered a good option for those with many allergies, allergies have been reported. It’s more common to have an allergic reaction to using coconut oil on your skin or in your hair, than when ingesting it.
Products containing coconut derived ingredients such as coconut diethanolamide, cocamide sulphate, cocamide DEA, CDEA could be problematic for those experiencing a coconut allergy (ASCIA, 2010). It’s always a good idea to patch test any new product.
What about the environmental impact of coconut oil?
‘Food miles’ is a term used to indicate how much of an impact a food has on the environment based on the distance it has had to travel to get from where it was grown to your plate. Foods that need to be transported from distant countries (coconuts are mostly grown in Indonesia, the Philippines and India) are a big contributor to the worlds greenhouse gas emissions.
Coconut trees don’t age well, and so require a large area of land to be planted on for farmers to keep up with demand. This act of mono-farming takes its toll on native plants and can be a drain on the soil, resulting in the need for chemical fertilisers which can be harmful to the soil, water and air health.
To reduce your impact, don’t overdo it on the coconut oil. Choose certified organic and Fair Trade Certified coconut oil, and recycle your containers properly after you’re finished.
Do I recommend taking coconut oil as a supplement? Generally no, at least until further research is available.
Do I recommend using coconut oil in cooking? Yes, in moderation – don’t go over two tablespoons a day. If you are making vegan baked goods this can be a good alternative for butter, I consider it to be a better choice than margarine, however if you are frying or roasting, olive oil is likely to be the better choice. Chances are if you’re vegan you’re having a lot of vegetables and minimal fat, so this will be fine for you.
For people at risk of Alzheimer’s disease, it may be worthwhile to use coconut oil for a frying medium, with some olive oil use occasionally as well, and to have plenty of veggies alongside it.
Do I recommend using coconut oil topically? Yes. I can’t see any harm in this, except for perhaps that it may get smelly if you leave the oil on your skin in the day, or if you have an allergy. My favourite uses of topical coconut oil are as a cleanser or makeup remover, as a hair and scalp treatment and as an ingredient in balms and moisturisers (alongside other beneficial oils and waxes).
Do I recommend oil pulling with coconut oil? Yes! Dental health is important and coconut oil is an easy and relatively inexpensive way to look after your teeth and gums when used alongside brushing and flossing.
Essentially, coconut oil doesn’t need to be avoided, but you need to make sure it’s the ‘virgin’ extract (and ideally organic and Fair Trade Certified), don’t go overboard with it, and consume it in the context of a healthy diet.
Now it’s your turn – Do you have a question about this article or coconut oil for me? Ask away in the comment section below, I love hearing from you.
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