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Benefits of Coconut oil - fact or fad?

There's often misconceptions of whether coconut oil is good for you or not - some claim it's better than butter, some claim that it's just a fantasy. This blog will delve into the nutrition composition of coconut oil, as well as some common claims of coconut oil.


Before we begin, I wrote another blogpost a while ago regarding healthy cooking oil. Check it out here if you want an overview of what to look out for when choosing a cooking oil, as well as health benefits of different oils!



What is coconut oil?


Coconut oil is extracted from the flesh of coconut. After removing the protein, carbohydrate and fibre from the flesh, it's left with pure fat. 92% of those fats are saturated fat, and most of which is a medium-chain fatty acid (MCT) called Lauric Acid.


From my previous blogpost regarding healthy cooking oils, I mentioned that saturated fat is the unhealthy fat that causes an increase in Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (bad cholesterol), which is linked to several chronic diseases, including stroke and heart diseases.


Okay so it's unhealthy - sounds pretty straightforward? Before we jump into conclusions, let's look into why some claims say otherwise and whether they're true or not with some scientific evidence.





Claim 1: Coconut oil is healthy because the saturated fat in coconut oil is metabolised differently


This is partially true, as lauric acid, being MCT, is directly absorbed and enters the body via the portal vein (main vein coming from liver once all detoxification is complete), rather than combining with cholesterol and protein to form small complex called lipoprotein like long chain fatty acids (LCT) do.


Because of this, people claim that it isn't as 'obesogenic' as other fats [1].


That being said, this claim is purely based on literature review, without much evidence in clinical studies.



Claim 2: Coconut oil is better than butter as it raises High Density Lipoprotein (HDL, good cholesterol)


One study looked into the effects of coconut oil on cholesterol levels. When compared with a diet with butter or unsaturated fat (olive or safflower oil), coconut oil indeed raised HDL, but it also raised total cholesterol and harmful LDL levels more than unsaturated oils!


Coconut oil and has similar effects in blood lipid levels, such as raising total and LDL cholesterol, as other saturated fats, such as beef fat, palm oil and butter.




Claim 3: People where their cultural diet consists of coconut has a lower rate of developing cardiovascular disease (e.g. India, Philippines, Polynesia)


Although some epidemiological studies indicate so, we should note that there are many other characteristics of their lifestyle and diet that could cause this:


  1. They consume the flesh of coconut as well as the oil

  2. The type of coconut they eat is different than what is used in a typical Western diet, as they're less processed.

  3. Their typical diet also consists of foods rich in fiber and low in processed and sugary foods. [2]



Bottom Line


There is currently not enough evidence to recommend the use of coconut oil as a healthier choice over others rich in unsaturated fats (again, check my other blogpost for more recommendations).


For now, coconut oil is likely to lead to less desirable blood lipid levels and potentially increase the risk of coronary heart disease.


Remember, to maintain a healthy weight and prevent diseases, we need to look at the whole diet and lifestyle. Our body is super complex and require a range of different nutrients for optimal health, so there's no one 'superfood' that will 'boost' our health.


References


1. Papamandjaris, A. A., MacDougall, D. E., & Jones, P. J. (1998). Medium chain fatty acid metabolism and energy expenditure: obesity treatment implications. Life sciences, 62(14), 1203–1215. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0024-3205(97)01143-0


2. Laurence Eyres, Michael F. Eyres, Alexandra Chisholm, Rachel C. Brown, Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans, Nutrition Reviews, Volume 74, Issue 4, April 2016, Pages 267–280, https://doi.org/10.1093/nutrit/nuw002

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