Nutrition Articles

The Truth about Coconut Oil

Is It Really Healthy?

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Conduct a quick Google search, and you’ll find miraculous claims about a tropical fat that has become increasingly popular among health-conscious consumers in recent years: coconut oil.  Health claims about the oil's ability to help you burn fat, boost your memory, improve your heart health—and even prevent sunburn—abound. Many trusted talk-show hosts and ''wellness experts'' have touted coconut oil as nature's ''miracle'' food. 

In contrast, many other health and nutrition experts disagree. Coconut oil has long been on the list of ''unhealthy'' fats due to its high saturated fat content.

So, whom should you believe?

Before you twist off the lid on a new jar, here are the real, unbiased—and research-supported—facts about coconut oil.

In a (Coco)nut Shell: The Condensed Story of Coconut Oil
People make a lot of claims about coconut oil, but there is no well-designed, peer-reviewed, credible scientific evidence to show that coconut oil speeds metabolism, promotes weight loss, cures Alzheimer’s disease, improves brain function, or improves heart health. In addition, no evidence exists to prove that ''virgin'' coconut oil is any less damaging to your heart than other varieties.

Nutritionally speaking, coconut oil contains 9 calories per gram, as do all other fats, making it a calorie-dense food.  Dietary fat from all sources should make up no more than 35% of your daily calorie intake.  Probably more importantly—and where the controversy lies—is that more than 90% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated fat. Decades of research have determined that saturated fat is detrimental to the health of your heart and blood vessels (more on that later). That's why healthy adults are advised to consume no more than 10% of their calories in the form of saturated fats. (For people with heart disease--or at high risk for developing it--that amount is even lower: Less than 7% of their calories should come from saturated fat each day.)

So, how would coconut oil fit into those guidelines? For a SparkPeople member following a diet of 1,200-1,550 calories per day, their upper limit of saturated fat is 17 grams daily. A single tablespoon of coconut oil contains about 12 grams of saturated fat (and 117 calories) and would bring someone very close to that upper limit—without eating any other sources of saturated fat.

If you like the flavor or texture that coconut oil provides in cooking, go ahead and use it—but only in moderation.  Use it just like you would any other high-fat cooking ingredient, such as oil or butter—in small, not copious, amounts. As always, measure how much you use, and track your food intake on SparkPeople's free Nutrition Tracker. Keep an eye on your total calories, fat—and saturated fat—intake to make sure all are within your recommended ranges. 

Coconut Oil Can Be Confusing If You're Not a Chemist
When we consume plant and animal sources of fat, we also eat their fatty acids, all of which are structurally different. For example, some of the fatty acids in butter and milk fat have a short chain length of 4-6 carbons. Coconut oil contains fats with 12-14 carbons, animal fats have some longer carbon chains with 16-20 carbons, and peanut oil has 20-22 carbons in some of its fatty acid chains. While there is no exact definition as to the number of carbons needed to be classified as a short-, medium- or long-chain fatty acid, most researchers define ''medium-chain'' as somewhere between 6 and 14 carbons.  

We know that fats with medium chains (called medium-chain triglycerides or ''MCTs'') are metabolized much differently than fats with shorter and longer carbon chains.  When consumed, MCTs are transported directly from your intestines to the liver, where they are more likely to be burned as fuel, as opposed to shorter and longer chains, which typically get stored as fat in the body. MCTs require fewer enzymes and bile acids for digestion, too.  

So, where can you get these amazing MCTs? Many people claim they're found in coconut oil, but that is only a half-truth. No source of food is ''purely'' any single type of fat. Even olive oil, touted for its heart-healthy monounsaturated fat content, also contains small amounts of saturated fat, for example; it's just that most of the fat is the healthy kind. Similarly, foods contain a blend of short-, medium- and long-chain fats. No single source of MCT is available—it's only manufactured and used in medical or research settings.  

Many people who make positive health claims about coconut oil are actually using research on medical-grade MCT oil, which is not available as a dominant source of fat in any food.  It's true that MCT can be distilled from coconut oil, but it is not the same thing as the coconut oil you buy in a jar at the store. Chemically speaking, these two oils are very different.

MCT oil comprises caprylic acid (8 carbons) and capric acid (10 carbons).  Therefore 99.9% of MCT oil composition comes from medium chain fats. On the other hand, coconut oil only contains about 10%-15% of these MCTs (caprylic acid and capric acid).  Lauric acid (a 12-carbon chain) makes up 45%-50% of coconut oil. The remaining fatty acids in coconut oil include caproic acid (6 carbons), myristic acid (14 carbons), palmitic acid (16 carbons), and stearic acid (18 carbons). Continued ›

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About The Author

Becky Hand Becky Hand
Becky is a registered and licensed dietitian with almost 20 years of experience. A certified health coach through the Cooper Institute with a master's degree in health education, she makes nutrition principles practical, easy-to-apply and fun. See all of Becky's articles.