Clearing Up The Coconut Oil Confusion

“What is the latest research on coconut oil?  Years ago they said it was absolutely no good but that thinking seems to have changed, especially in Alzheimer’s research.”

Great question.  It’s difficult to stay up-to-date on the most current research and even more difficult to discern what’s good research.  Luckily, I was able to time-warp back into my undergrad mode (where I was involved in research for over a year) to look at the research surrounding coconut oil and health.

Dầu dừa
Research has shown that coconut oil has some great health benefits.
Phú Thịnh Co / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Yes, there has been much debate in the medical and science community regarding the health implications of consuming coconut oil.  However, it appears that more recent and credible research indicates positive outcomes using coconut oil for various health conditions.

An understandable concern that has been brought up in the past is that coconut oil may increase cholesterol because it is a saturated fat.  However, numerous studies have found that incorporating coconut oil into the diet did not negatively impact cholesterol values.¹²³  This is most likely due to the fact that, while most of coconut oil is a saturated fat, it is made up of medium chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs).  MCFAs are quickly metabolized by your liver and therefore do not participate in cholesterol creation or transportation³.  It is important to note, the studies that found a correlation between coconut oil consumption and increased risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD), used hydrogenated coconut oils. This is problematic because “hydrogenation increases stability of the oils at room temperature and for cooking, but results in increased levels of trans-fatty acids have been linked to adverse lipid profiles and heightened risk for CVD”.³

So what if it doesn’t affect your cholesterol and CVD risk?  Well, research continues to find additional benefits of incorporating coconut oil into your diet.  Some studies have found that coconut oil decreases abdominal obesity and increases sensitivity to insulin.¹⁴⁵  Other studies have shown that coconut oil has high antioxidant activities which “could be beneficial in the management of many degenerative diseases”.⁶⁷  Another study claims that coconut oil has anti-thrombotic effects, antibacterial, antiviral, and anti-fungal properties, and can even act as an insect repellant!⁸

As far as Alzheimer’s goes, there needs to be more research to determine what effect coconut oil has on the disease.  A lot of the support for coconut oil for Alzheimer’s appears to be empirical (meaning an individual person used coconut oil for their Alzheimer’s and had an improvement of symptoms but it has been studied in a research setting). One working theory is that the smaller parts that coconut oil is broken-down into, ketones, may act as a substitute to the glucose that your brain needs, since, in Alzheimer’s, that pathway may be impaired.⁹  Which is interesting, considering the link between Alzheimer’s and diabetes. Also, a daily dose of coconut oil for health purposes has still yet to be established and should be avoided in those with diabetes or liver issues.⁹

So, to sum up all the fun science that transpired in the last few paragraphs, unrefined coconut oil has not been shown in the research to negatively affect cholesterol and may provide some antioxidant protection as well as decrease your waistline.  It’s always lovely when delicious things also have health benefits.  What’s your favorite way/recipe to use coconut oil?

 

1) Assunção, M. L., et al. “Effects of Dietary Coconut Oil on the Biochemical and Anthropometric Profiles of Women Presenting Abdominal Obesity”. Lipids. July 2009. 44 (7): 593-601.
2) Puligundla, P., et al. “Emerging Trends in Modification of Dietary Oils and Fats, and Health Implications – A Review”. Sains Malaysiana.  2012. 41 (7): 871-877.
3) Feranil, A. B., et al. “Coconut oil predicts a beneficial lipid profile in pre-menopausal women in the Philippines”. Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2011. 20 (2): 190-195.
4) Nagao, K., et al. “Medium-chain fatty acids: Functional lipids for the prevention and treatment of the metabolic syndrome” Pharmacological Research. March 2010. 61 (3): 208-212.
5) Huth, P.J., et al. “Bioactivity and emerging role of short and medium chain fatty acids”. Lipid Technology. Dec 2010. 22(12): 266-269.
6) Sabitha, P., et al. “Comparison of Lipid Profile and Antioxidant Enzymes Among South Indian Men Consuming Coconut Oil and Sunflower Oil.” Indian Journal of Clinical Biochemistry. Jan 2009. 24 (1): 76-81.
7) Janu, C., et al. “Comparative Study on the Total Phenolic Content and Radical Scavenging Activity of Common Edible Vegetable Oils.” Journal of Food Biochemistry. Jan 2013; 10 (1111)
8) DebMandal, M., et al. “Coconut: In health promotion and disease prevention.” Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Medicine. Jan 2011. 241-247.
9) Doty, L. “Coconut Oil for Alzheimer’s Disease?” Clinical Practice. 2012 (1): 12-17.

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