Coconut oil: Healthful or unhealthful?

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Coconut oil has been all the rage for some time. Endorsed by a number of celebrities as a superfood, this tropical-smelling fat — often liberally applied to our skin and scalps — is a favorite of many. But the question remains: is it healthful or not?
coconut oil

Are the health claims that adorn coconut oil based on fact or fiction?

Fat suffered a bad reputation for a long time and we were told to opt for low-fat options instead. But the tides turned eventually, prompting us to see fats in a new light.

Our lives became simpler. We learned how to avoid bad (saturated and hydrogenated) fats and eat good (unsaturated) ones to keep our tickers and arteries healthy.

Then the humble coconut came along in 2003, and the waters were once again muddied. Seen by some as a superfood but recently labeled by the American Heart Association (AHA) as part of the pool of unhealthful fats, the controversy goes on.

So, what are the scientific facts behind the coconut oil hype, and what are the latest developments?

Secret ingredient: ‘Medium-chain’ fatty acids

Many of the purported health claims surrounding coconut oil stem from research published in 2003 by Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D. — a professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University in New York City, NY.

Prof. St-Onge found that in overweight women, consumption of medium-chain fatty acids — such as those found in coconut oil — led to an increase in energy expenditure and fat oxidation compared with women who ate long-chain or saturated fatty acids.

But Prof. St-Onge used a specially formulated fat diet in her study, not coconut oil, and she never claimed that coconut oil was the secret to the results seen in her research.

The rumor mill had begun to spin and coconut oil became widely hailed as a superfood.

In fact, a 2009 study involving 40 women showed that 30 milliliters of coconut — consumed daily for a 12-week period — increased good high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, accompanied by a reduction in waist circumference.

As more studies have followed, the picture became less clear-cut.

AHA and WHO advise to limit consumption

Despite the number of studies casting coconut oil in a favorable light, the AHA issued an advisory note on dietary fats and cardiovascular disease in June 2017, recommending that we replace saturated fats with more healthful unsaturated fats. This includes coconut oil.

As the World Health Organization (WHO) state, “[U]nsaturated fats (e.g. found in fish, avocado, nuts, sunflower, canola, and olive oils) are preferable to saturated fats (e.g. found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee, and lard).”

The reason? Saturated fat is bad for our cardiovascular health. However, there is another twist to this fascinating tale.

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