Is Coconut Oil Healthy?
Coconut oil seems to draw out strong opinions. The oil, which is composed primarily of saturated fat, has often been vilified as bad for the heart. Yet others have made claims that coconut contains healthier fats. The saturated fat in coconut oil is shorter in length than most saturated fat and functions differently in the body. So what’s the truth? Is coconut oil good or bad?
It’s worth making several distinctions. First, there’s a difference between refined and unrefined or virgin coconut oil. Unrefined oils generally have more antioxidants and other beneficial compounds but can burn or smoke easier during cooking. Generally, unrefined and virgin coconut oil will have a strong coconut smell. There is also hydrogenated coconut oil which is a trans fat that is clearly linked to heart disease and other health problems (Kummerow 2009). And while coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides (MCT), MCT oil is a refined version and not the same as coconut oil.
Cholesterol and Virgin Coconut Oil
While there are controversies around cholesterol and heart disease, for now we’re just going to focus on the effects of coconut oil on cholesterol. Coconut oil, even virgin coconut oil, appears to raise total cholesterol and both “bad” LDL and “good” HDL cholesterol (Jayawardena 2020). Some authors have argued that the effects of coconut oil are neutral due to the rise in both types of cholesterol. However, it is worth noting that too much “good” HDL cholesterol does appear to be harmful (Madsen 2021).
This is why many nutritionists and doctors claim coconut oil is bad. It contains saturated fat and raises cholesterol. While this does create some concerns, real world studies trying to pin down increased heart disease due to coconut oil consumption have failed to find a connection. One study evaluating increasing rates of heart disease in India compared coconut consumption among those with heart disease to those without. Coconut consumption was similar in both groups (Kumar 1997).
Studies of cultural groups consuming larger quantities of coconut that appeared to cause higher cholesterol were not shown to have increased heart disease either (Davidson 1981, Lipoeto 2004). In population studies, eating coconut and coconut oil does not appear to be related to heart disease, although more data is needed.
Part of the reason may have to do with higher quantities of antioxidants found within whole coconut and virgin coconut oil (Nevin 2009). While LDL cholesterol is generally considered bad, it only becomes problematic when damaged or oxidized (Poznyak 2021). The antioxidants found in coconut oil help to prevent LDL oxidation. This may be why heart disease doesn’t increase with its use (Palazhy 2018, Nevin 2004). Benefits may also stem from anti-inflammatory activity present in virgin coconut oil as well (Intahpuak 2010).
Virgin Coconut Oil and Blood Sugar
Studies have generally found that virgin coconut oil improves blood sugar. A study in patients with metabolic syndrome, a condition characterized by higher blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol problems, found that coconut oil reduced fasting blood sugar (Nikooei 2021). A meta-analysis of studies on coconut oil found lower levels of hemoglobin A1C. Hemoglobin A1C is a marker used to track the average level of blood sugar over the last few months (Jayawardena 2020).
Alzheimer’s Dementia and Virgin Coconut Oil
Inflammation, poor energy production, plaques and tangles are all problems that occur in the brain that correlate with dementia. Coconut oil may help address at least some of these issues.
Well before any symptoms of dementia, the brain initially starts having problems producing energy (Blass 2001). Normally, sugar is the main source of fuel for the energy-hungry brain. When this process starts to fail, damage and cell death can ensue. One potential way to arrest or slow the damage is to provide an alternative fuel source. The medium chain triglycerides found in coconut oil are one such alternative fuel. Because of their structure, the fats found in coconut oil behave differently and are more readily utilized for energy. By providing the brain with an alternative fuel, it may be possible to reduce the damage from poor energy production.
A preliminary study on coconut oil in moderate to severe dementia showed improvements in cognition with its use (Gandotra 2014). Animal studies have also shown protective effects of coconut oil on brain function (Attia 2020, Mirzaei 2018, Alghamdi 2018). While stronger evidence is needed, the results suggest that coconut oil might help in prevention and treatment of dementia.
Coconut Oil and Weight Loss
Suggestions have also been made that coconut oil may help with weight loss. While the evidence is scant, it does suggest the possibility. A trial in heart disease patients found that a high virgin coconut oil diet decreased waist size and body weight (Cardoso 2015). The benefits were modest with just 1.3 pounds lost on average after six months. Other data suggests that coconut oil might help decrease appetite (Valente 2018). It’s worth noting that some shorter trials didn’t see improvements in weight (Nikooei 2021).
Overall, coconut oil may have modest effects on weight. Based on the results found so far, I wouldn’t expect dramatic improvements with its use. But I also wouldn’t discourage someone from trying it.
Coconut oil, especially virgin coconut oil, does not appear to have negative effects on health. While total cholesterol, LDL and HDL cholesterol increase, it isn’t associated with increased heart disease. The antioxidant and metabolic benefits of virgin coconut oil may help in preventing and treating dementia while promoting modest weight loss. However, larger and longer clinical trials are needed to best assess its real world effects.