Throughout my practice as a dietitian common questions come and go in waves. Lately I have been asked a lot about coconut oil again (just after I thought this had died down a bit). Do you have questions about coconut oil?
Simply, I don't recommend coconut oil as an everyday oil.
Unfortunately, there is not a lot of research around coconut oil in humans (and remember..we like to see good quality evidence before we can put our hands on our chest and yell from the roof top that some thing is awesome for us) but what we know so far:
- At this stage there is no evidence for the amazing medical properties that coconut oil is promoted for (e.g. immunity, fat loss etc.) - at this stage anyway. Remember, nutrition is a young science.
- Some of the theory that coconut oil is “good” is loosely based on the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that it contains, however the majority of fat within coconut oil is saturated and shown to be atherosclerotic - the process of fatty deposits building up in your arteries (Thank you to my colleague Anne from Anne Scott Health for this piece of information).
- There was a recent review of the evidence by the NZ Heart Foundation that concluded that regular consumption of coconut oil raises total cholesterol, HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol compared to other fats - except for butter, which raised cholesterol levels even further. Some will argue that the fact it increases HDL is a good thing (because HDL cholesterol is known as the good cholesterol which can help remove fatty deposits from our blood vessels), however research also suggests that not all HDL cholesterol is functional and saturated fats tend to increase non-functional HDL – meaning that even though coconut oil may raise it, it may not have any benefits. Food is so complex.
- There are no clinical studies that look at the health promoting or treatment effects of coconut oil for Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, gastrointestinal disease or viral conditions/infections. There is more information on Alzheimers disease here.
My perspective and recommended use for the general population:
- I think more research is needed around the full impact of plant-based saturated fats especially in the context of a healthy diet and the full impact on cholesterol levels. But for now research still tells us to limit our intake (as above).
- A little bit of coconut oil used here or there (not all day every day) to cook certain dishes I'm sure is no issue. I am a fan of using a variety of oils for different culinary purposes.
- I highlighted the word context (above) as everyone has really different eating patterns, which is important to consider when deciding whether a food may be suitable. If you eat a lot of saturated fat from meat or processed foods like biscuits and pastries, using coconut oil regularly will just add to the intake. In comparison, if you follow a healthy vegan or vegetarian eating pattern, coconut oil may be a good source of saturated fat (because we do need a little bit) as your everyday eating pattern may be naturally lower in saturated fat.
- Coconut oil could be a better alternative to butter in some instances – but you still need to think about its culinary use. Do you want everything to taste like coconut?
- Eating teaspoons of coconut oil on top of your daily food intake may cause weight gain versus reduce weight (I have seen this in practice) - remember, coconut oil is still very energy dense (AKA high in kilojoules/calories).
- There is absolutely no need to use coconut oil as an everyday oil when the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil are so well known through awesome research (read more about the Mediterranean way here). This is the oil we should all be talking about...
Eyres L. Coconut oil and the heart. Heart Foundation of Nutrition [internet]. 2014 [cited 2014 Oct 10]. Available from: http://www.heartfoundation.org.nz/uploads/Evidence_paper_coconut_August_2014.pdf