Get the facts on coconut oil

Published: Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012 1:39 p.m. CDT

Coconut oil has seen decreased use in recent years due to its high saturated fat content but has seen resurgence on the market lately. Health claims abound for coconut and coconut oil via websites, product literature, magazine articles and books. According to these sources, the health benefits of coconut oil include a wide range of medical conditions like weight loss, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, thyroid conditions and Alzheimer’s.

So is coconut oil slimming? Those who claim coconut or coconut oil helps stimulate the metabolism and aids in weight loss base the claim not on studies done with coconuts or coconut oil, but instead with MCT oil (medium chain triglycerides), which is distilled from coconut and palm kernel oils. There is a small amount of data indicating that MCT oil may be less likely to promote weight gain but that alone does not prove that coconut oil will have the same effect. There are no well-designed clinical trials that demonstrate using coconut oil in place of other oils promotes weight loss.

How about heart healthy? Like other tropical oils, such as palm and palm kernel oil, coconut oil is high in saturated fatty acids, specifically lauric acid and myristic acid. Individual saturated fatty acids differ in their effects on lipid levels. Both lauric acid and myristic acid have been shown to markedly raise total cholesterol as well as LDL-cholesterol levels.

A study that is typically referred to by promoters of coconut oil involves two Polynesian islands many years ago. What isn’t referred to by these promoters is that this population also consumed far less cholesterol and salt than people in modern societies and consumed far more fiber, plant sterols and omega-3 fatty acids (from fish) than modern societies. Additionally, there was very little tobacco use and stress levels may have been less as well. Citing this study as proof that coconut oil is heart healthy goes beyond what the data really showed.

There also are claims that coconut oil helps Alzheimer’s disease patients. This claim is based on a very small benefit that was noted from a food supplement made with MCT oil. In addition, there is no data showing that coconut oil has benefited Alzheimer’s disease patients.

Therefore, according to a number of reputable sources, including the Academy of Food and Nutrition and the Natural Medicines Database, there is insufficient scientific evidence to support these health claims for coconut and coconut oil. The bottom line message is this:

• Limit intake of saturated fat (including all tropical oils), trans fat and cholesterol

• Consume adequate energy to maintain or achieve appropriate, healthy weight

• Replace saturated fat with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat

• Increase intake of omega-3 fatty acids, fiber — especially soluble fiber, vegetables and fruits

• Reduce intake of added sugar

• Use the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 to guide food choices for a healthy eating plan overall

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