Coconut oil: Healthful or unhealthful?
Endorsed by a number of celebrities as a superfood, coconut oil is trendier than ever. But the question remains: is it healthfull or not?
Fat suffered from a bad reputation for a long time, but the tides turned eventually, prompting us to see fats in a new light. We learned how to avoid bad (saturated and hydrogenated) fats and eat good (unsaturated) ones to keep ourselves healthy. Coconut was recently labeled by the American Heart Association (AHA) as part of the pool of unhealthful fats.
‘Medium-chain’ fatty acids
Many of the health claims surrounding coconut oil stem from research published in 2003 by Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D. — a professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University in New York City, NY.
Prof. St-Onge found that in overweight women, consumption of medium-chain fatty acids — such as those found in coconut oil — led to an increase in energy expenditure and fat oxidation compared with women who ate long-chain or saturated fatty acids.
But Prof. St-Onge used a specially formulated fat diet in her study, not coconut oil.
The rumor begun to spin and coconut oil became widely hailed as a superfood.
A 2009 study involving 40 women showed that 30 milliliters of coconut — consumed daily for a 12-week period — increased good high-density lipoprotein (HDL) levels, accompanied by a reduction in waist circumference.
As more studies have followed, the picture became even less clear.
In Polynesia, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Kitava and in some areas of India this is the most commonly used fat. The populations of these countries have good health indicators, such as the low prevalence of cardiovascular disease or hypercholesterolemia (increased blood cholesterol concentration). Some people say it is because of coconut oil. But inhabitants from these countries have a diet rich in fiber (consumption of fruit and vegetables), low in sugary foods and processed meats and rich in fish.
What is the problem with coconut oil?
As the World Health Organization (WHO) states, “[U]nsaturated fats (e.g. found in fish, avocado, nuts, sunflower, canola, and olive oils) are preferable to saturated fats (e.g. found in fatty meat, butter, palm and coconut oil, cream, cheese, ghee, and lard).”
Coconut oil is not a demon, but it is not the best fat in the world either. There are no conclusive studies to support all the benefits of coconut oil.
Some people associate coconut oil with a more rapid loss of body fat by the presence of these medium chain fatty acids that can help increase caloric expenditure and reduce appetite. But the greatest advantage is to be “a stable fat for cooking”, by the presence of many saturated fatty acids more resistant to oxidation.
What, then, is the best fat?
Olive oil is the best option. While low-density lipoprotein (LDL) is generally thought of as “bad” cholesterol, the HDL type is widely accepted as being its “healthful” counterpart.
In 2017, three studies about fats and cholesterol were made. The first strudy found that saturated fats may not “clog” our arteries after all, while the second one uncovered a link between “good” HDL and mortality.
One of the problems with the controversy surrounding coconut oil is the lack of good-quality, large-scale human studies.
Together with Dr. Kay-Tee Khaw, a professor of clinical gerontology, and Dr. Nita Gandhi Forouhi, a professor of population health and nutrition — both at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom — compared the effects of coconut oil, olive oil, and butter in 94 human volunteers.
Each study participant was asked to consume 50 grams of one of these fats daily for 4 weeks.
Those who consumed coconut oil saw a 15 percent increase in HDL levels, while this number only stood at 5 percent for olive oil, which is accepted as being good for our cardiovascular system.
If we are working on the premise that HDL is good, then these results speak in favor of coconut oil.