Coconut oil has been in the spotlight for quite a few years now. It’s been touted as a useful elixir for treating anything from small issues (e.g. sunburn) to serious diseases (like cancer). Is there anything coconut oil can’t do? Before we try to answer that, let’s step back and explore what coconut oil is to see if there is any weight to the health claims out there.
What is coconut oil?
As it’s name implies, coconut oil is derived from coconut (the flesh specifically) and is 100% fat. The fat in coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat, with the rest being unsaturated fat. It is one of the only plant-derived sources of saturated fat, which usually comes from animal foods like dairy, meat and eggs.
Why is it touted as a healthy food?
Traditionally, saturated fat has been known to increase our ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol (called ‘bad’ because it clogs our arteries). The majority of saturated fat in coconut oil is a type of fat known as lauric acid. Studies have shown that lauric acid behaves a little differently to most other saturated fats and more like unsaturated fats, the healthy fats that increase our ‘good’ HDL cholesterol (‘good’ because it removes the LDL cholesterol from our arteries).
Is it healthy for my heart?
Not really. The increase in ‘good’ HDL is only small, and it still increases our ‘bad’ LDL. Studies looking at people eating different types of fat and heart health show that coconut oil has less of a detrimental effect on our arteries than other foods high in saturated fat like butter, but aren’t nearly as healthy as unsaturated oils (more on these at the end).
Will it reduce my appetite?
There is a popular belief that having a spoonful or so of coconut oil will help to fill you up and reduce hunger. This is true, but only because it is made up of pure fat (like all oils), which is extremely dense in energy (kilojoules/calories). Ever notice how you feel really full after a fatty or oily meal, even if you only ate a small serve? A tablespoon of coconut oil (or any oil) will provide you with about 500kJ, the same amount of energy in a large apple or 1 1/2 slices of wholemeal bread. When you compare it to these foods, it’s no wonder such a small amount fills you up! Coconut oil doesn’t have any special appetite-suppressing qualities other than the fact that it is a rich source of energy, a quality that deems it less than healthy.
Will it help me lose weight?
Lauric acid appears to be used by the body for energy a little more easily than other fats, and therefore is less likely to be stored as fat. However, this alone does not classify coconut oil as a weight loss food. Just because it may be less likely to be stored as fat doesn’t mean it won’t be. Also, the difference in amounts of fat stored after eating coconut oil vs other types of fat is so minimal it does not cause any noticeable differences in weight.
Will coconut oil help me to: Prevent or cure cancer? Alzheimer’s disease? Kidney disease?
These claims are completely false. There is currently no evidence to show that coconut oil can do any of these things. If there was some weight to these claims, native populations who live on traditional diets that include a lot of coconut (e.g. Samoans, Sri Lankans) would all have a reduced risk of these types of diseases, but the statistics don’t show this.
What to use instead
When cooking with oil, unsaturated oils are your best bet in terms of heart health. These include vegetable oils like sunflower, rice bran and olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil is the healthiest choice because it contains monounsaturated fats and some omega-3 fats (which are both very heart-protective) as well as some antioxidants.
However, the best sources of fat are whole, unprocessed plant foods like nuts, seeds and avocados. Unlike oils which contain very little nutrients (apart from some vitamins in higher-quality oils), these whole sources of good fats contain fibre, vitamins and minerals and are much harder to overeat.
Tip: Any fatty food that is solid at anything lower than room temperature is high in saturated fat, and the more solid it is, the more saturated fat it contains (apart from coconut oil, think ghee, butter and lard).
If there’s any real benefit to coconut oil, it would be the fact that it works well as a moisturiser… And that’s about it! So if you’ve got some in your pantry at least you’ll still have a use for it!