Nutrition Articles

The Truth about Coconut Oil

Is It Really Healthy?

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The Research on MCT 
Some research done on humans shows that substituting the distilled MCT oil for long-chain fats found in meats, fish oils, and vegetable oils can result in a short-term increase in metabolic rate and increased satiety for the calories consumed.  This is one factor that could result in weight loss.  So, MCT oil does appear to be slimming when used with other weight-loss interventions. 

However, to imply that the research data from a study on MCT also applies to coconut oil is erroneous and a misinterpretation of the data. The carbon chain make-up of MCT oil and coconut oil is entirely different, as shown in the chemistry lesson above. Caprylic acid and capric acid make up 99.9% of MCT oil, and only 10%-15% of coconut oil.

Also, coconut oil’s main fatty acid is lauric acid.  This fatty acid, along with coconut oil’s myristic and palmitic acids, have been shown to markedly raise LDL (''bad'') cholesterol. 

A Word on Saturated Fat
More and more people are questioning what we once thought about saturated fat: that all saturated fat is bad for you. It's true that nutrition science is ever-evolving; the research and knowledge regarding saturated fat has really grown in recent years.  So, who is right?

We now know that different types of saturated fat can affect the body differently. Previously, all saturated fats were considered the same, but research now shows that the saturated fats in coconut oil are somewhat different from the saturated fats in meat and butter, and might therefore affect the body differently. However, researchers still don’t know for sure that this makes coconut oil good for your heart. Some studies suggest that some types of saturated fat might lower risk factors for heart disease, and other studies show the exact opposite.  Until we know for certain, it is still best to be cautious and keep your total saturated fat intake at or below 10% of your daily calories.  

What about Populations That Eat Diets High in Coconut Oil?
One study conducted many years ago on two Polynesian islands (Pukapuka Islands and Tokelau Islands) found that the consumption of coconuts was remarkably high, making up 34%-63% of the total calories of the populations.  Since coconut oil is highly saturated, it is not surprising that the blood cholesterol levels in the islanders were elevated.  Yet, the researchers noted that cardiovascular disease was uncommon.

However, this claim was based on a single electrocardiogram (ECG) test, not on death or autopsy.  And it is important to note that the ECG is not considered a reliable way to assess cardiovascular health.  Also realize that these populations had a low intake of sugar, cholesterol and salt in their diets, and consumed far more fiber, plant sterols, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish.  They also had a more active lifestyle and used little tobacco.  This study is often used to promote the use of coconut oil, but the study is very limited in its actual application, and it was not a well-controlled study. Plus, as we all remember from sixth-grade science: Correlation does not prove causation. If these islanders were, in fact, healthier and at low risk of heart disease (which wasn't necessarily proven, remember), there is no possible way an uncontrolled study like this can attribute that result to their consumption of coconut oil. A myriad of other diet and health behaviors that impact heart health were not isolated and controlled for in this observational study. 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.

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