Coconut oil is the latest ‘it girl’ in the food world. It has been touted as being able to:
- reduce the risk of heart disease
- speed up metabolism and increase satiety thus helping with weight loss
- reverse Alzheimer’s Disease
However, many of these claims are anecdotal. Large randomized controlled studies, the gold standard of scientific research, are still needed to prove these claims with any certainty.
Coconut oil is a largely saturated fat, 92% saturated, compared to butter which is 60% saturated or lard at 40%. Saturated fat has been a big “no no” as it can raise LDL (bad) cholesterol levels. However, the majority of fats in coconut oil are called medium chain fatty acids (MCFA). MCFA are metabolized differently than long chain fatty acids that are contained in other saturated fats like butter and animal fats. The results are that it does not raise cholesterol to the same extent as butter. One study found that although coconut oil does raise LDL it also raises HDL (the good cholesterol) at the same time.
Although some benefits exist, coconut oil is still a saturated fat which should be eaten in moderation. It may be one step up from butter; however, it does not compare to the well- studied beneficial effects of olive oil on cardiovascular health. Olive oil, by comparison, decreases total blood cholesterol, LDL cholesterol and the LDL-HDL ratio. It is high in anti-oxidants that help neutralize free radicals that can damage cells that line our blood vessels. It has also been shown to reduce blood pressure. It is clearly a better choice than coconut oil. For an interesting point by point comparison of olive oil vs coconut oil click here.
The belief that coconut oil may aid in weight loss is based upon the unique way it is metabolized in the body. Unlike long-chain fatty acids (LCFA), MCFA are absorbed into the blood stream and delivered directly to the liver to be metabolized into energy. MCFA are not stored in fat cells as readily as LCFA. This can be helpful, particularly for an endurance athlete who is looking for alternative sources of energy to keep fuelled up throughout an event.
However, to date there is no hard scientific evidence that substituting coconut oil, in particular, for other fatty acids leads to significant weight loss. Coconut oil is still a fat that contains 9 calories per gram, compared to 4 calories for protein or carbohydrates. Eating too many calories in any form will lead to weight gain be that from coconut oil, butter or lard.
A blend of MCFA, called caprylidene, was used in a small study on Alzheimer’s patients that did show improved results on cognitive scores. This lead to the production and marketing of caprylidene as a medical food called Axona. Axona is only available by prescription and the cost can be prohibitive for some. Therefore, many have turned to coconut oil in order to save money with the hopes that its blend of MCFA will have a similar effect. Reports that coconut oil are beneficial to Alzheimer’s patients are, at this stage, purely anecdotal as no study has yet to be completed that shows coconut oil can also improve cognitive scores in Alzheimer’s patients. Studies are, however, currently been carried out the results of which should be available towards the end of 2014. So for now, watch this space.
The Bottom Line
Coconut has a wonderful flavour and there’s no problem using it occasionally, especially in place of butter or lard. However, don’t trade in your tin of extra virgin olive oil for a container of coconut oil just yet. The monounsaturated fatty acids of olive oil have again and again proven to provide superior health benefits to those of the newly popular coconut oil.
One sure fire way to get the most from your coconut oil is to spread it on your skin! Lauric acid, the primary fatty acid in coconut oil, has been proven to be an effective emollient as it smoothes the skin by filling in the spaces between skin cells.
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Sharma A, Bemis M, Desilets AR. Role of Medium Chain Triglycerides (Axona(R)) in the Treatment of Mild to Moderate Alzheimer’s Disease. Am J Alzheimers Dis Other Demen. 2014 Jan 9.Share This: