In 2011, something happened to the coconut oil market that had never really happened before—it exploded. Within four years, it was America’s favorite superfood, according to The Washington Post. However, three years later in 2018, its popularity was fizzling out.
The problem? People were starting to give the outrageous health claims being made online the side-eye. They were also starting to question if there could be negative consequences to eating more oil.
Even so, coconut oil hasn’t disappeared and neither have the health claims. Is it actually possible that eating it will give you a smaller waist? Could blending it into your morning coffee improve the health of your cardiovascular system, regulate your bowels, or give you more energy? Here’s what the experts have to say about making coconut oil a part of your diet.
Is coconut oil a cure-all or is it overhyped?
“I think that there’s been a lot of hype about it,” says psychologist and dietitian Ellen Alberston, PhD, RDN. “When you take a look at the research, the research really doesn’t coincide with people thinking it’s this miracle thing.”
Coconut oil’s rise to fame could be, in part, the result of the kind of diets that are trendy in popular culture. These are diets that emphasize low-carb, high-fat eating, like the paleo diet, keto diet, and Atkins diet.
“Specifically, ones that are higher in fat or are eliminating specific food groups,” says dietitian Allison Knott, MS, RDN. “A lot of the claims that come along with that type of eating pattern and having coconut oil be a part of that eating pattern, I think, allows people to say that coconut oil must have all of these positive benefits of these diet claims are being made.”
What about the research? It is true that some research does exist that seems to suggest that coconut oil can do amazing things for the body. However, much of this research is weak at best, according to dietitian Justine Hays MS, RD, who is quick to point at that there aren’t many large, well-controlled studies published in peer-reviewed journals that support “going wild” with coconut oil. In fact, some of this research doesn’t actually examine the benefits of the coconut oil you or I would buy in the grocery store. Instead, it uses an oil that is made entirely of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCT. This means that research doesn’t actually provide a full picture of the benefits and risks of consuming conventional coconut oil.
Are there risks associated with eating coconut oil?
It’s good to be clear on the nutrient contents of coconut oil. The first thing worth knowing is that it is a saturated fat, and has nearly 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, according to Albertson. And, as she points out, we know that eating saturated fat can increase LDL cholesterol, which isn’t good for anyone’s cardiovascular health.
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The conversations happening about coconut oil often aren’t clear, according to Knott, and this has contributed to how the general population thinks about and consumes this fat. Coconut oil contains fatty acids, and Knott points out that a lot of people talk about the medium-chain triglycerides or MCT. The conversation suggests that MCT is the primary fat in coconut oil, but that isn’t the case. Instead, the oil is 80 to 90 percent saturated fat and we know that there are serious risks for the heart when you make saturated fat a regular part of your diet.
Coconut oil is also high in calories. So, although it would be fine to occasionally use it for cooking, consuming more than the recommended amount of any fat is going to increase your calorie intake. This could make it difficult to maintain a specific, desired weight or lose weight if that is your goal.
But what about the claims that it can raise your good cholesterol, the HDL cholesterol?
“Even though it does have some of those medium-chain fats, which are thought to maybe help to boost your HDL, your good cholesterol, it doesn’t seem like the trade-off is high enough,” explains Albertson, meaning that the negative effects of the saturated fats outweigh the potential benefits of the polyunsaturated fats present in small amounts.
What are the benefits of eating coconut oil?
When it comes to claims about the health benefits of coconut oil, it can be a little confusing because there does appear to be some research on these claims. However, as Hays points out, the research isn’t nearly as comprehensive as it needs to be.
Instead, it appears that the primary benefit of this oil is the flavor, which is reason enough to have it as an occasional part of your diet but not a good reason to start stirring it into your morning coffee or eating it by the spoonful.
“I think it tastes really nice and sometimes I’ll use it in baking or recipes,” says Albertson, who points out how well it works in vegan baking.
Fat has a place in every diet, and even a little saturated fat is OK as a treat. However, if you’re looking to increase your healthy fat intake, there are better sources than coconut oil. Specifically, reach for unsaturated fat options. Olive oil, avocados, and nuts are all recommended by Albertson.
If it isn’t the flavor or its role in cooking that has you interested in coconut oil, it is worth taking a few minutes to examine why you are interested in eating more of this fat. Diets that promote increased fat intake often require omission or extreme restriction of certain food groups, like carbs, and this is generally not a practice recommended by dietitians.
“When you start to really limit what you are consuming, you might be missing out on some really important nutrients,” says Hays, who believes that whole grains, oats, quinoa and other carbohydrates all have a place in a healthy diet that is full of variety.
If you ask us, it seems the verdict is in on coconut oil. Eat it as a treat, but avoid getting sucked into extreme and restrictive diets. Instead, focus on balance and variety, filling your plate with vegetables and fruits, lean proteins and whole grains.
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