Coconut oil: Is it healthy or harmful?

Health experts have long touted the purported benefits of coconut oil, claiming that its high fat and MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) content can boost your health or even help you lose weight. In an online video that has gone viral, a Harvard professor takes on the popular food coconut oil, calling it ‘pure poison.’ But, is it true? Before tossing out your coconut oil, let’s see what the research has to say

Image Source: Google
Image Source: Google

Coconut oil is under attack. Once hailed as a miraculous superfood, its reputation has been more than a little bruised after a Harvard professor described the substance as ‘pure poison.’ To remove any doubt about her feelings, Karin Michels, an epidemiologist, added that coconut oil is “one of the worst things you can eat”.

It’s true that coconut oil could, for avid and devoted fans, contribute to potentially fatal heart disease.

So how can such a natural plant product be regarded as being so dangerous? After all, it looks so innocent, with its white flesh and refreshing liquid centre providing an exotic taste of tropical beaches, as well as minor amounts of minerals (potassium and iron), some fibre and fat.

What is coconut oil?

Basically, coconut oil is just oil extracted from the meat of coconuts, says Laura LaValle, RDN. It contains fats known as medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are metabolised differently than other types of fats (more on that later). People mostly use coconut oil for cooking, particularly for high-heat cooking methods, such as stir-fry, popping popcorn, or making baked goods.

Does coconut oil have any proven health benefits?

Some health experts believe that coconut oil can help you lose weight. “It’s been found to boost fat-burning and provide your body and brain with quick energy,” says Maggie Michalczyk, a Chicago-based registered dietician. This was supported by a 2009 study in the journal Lipids, which showed that women who ate coconut oil over a 12-week period lost belly fat, while people who ate soybean oil did not.

Coconut oil is full of MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides), a type of fatty acid that is rapidly absorbed and converted into fuel for the body. “A 2014 study found that MCTs increased the hunger-regulating hormones in the body that make a person feel full, compared to long-chain fatty acids,” Michalczyk says.

That said, these claims should be taken with a grain of salt, research on the link between coconut oil and weight loss is scant, and not every study has replicated these results.

Is coconut oil bad for you?

Probably not. The bulk of Michels’ argument against coconut oil is that it contains a lot of saturated fat, which in excess has been linked to increased LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol. But recent research has thrown longstanding claims about the dangers of saturated fat into question. Other factors, such as genetics and a history of smoking, are much more likely to increase your risk of heart attack or other cardiac events.

That said, the professor does have a few points about coconut oil worth considering: a tablespoon of coconut oil has 117 calories. That’s why LaValle encourages coconut oil intake “in moderate amounts, like 1 tablespoon per day or less,” she says. If you want to cook with coconut oil, you should also opt for virgin coconut oil, which has not been subject to chemical processing.

Bottom line: Coconut oil is probably fine for you in moderation, but it’s far from the superfood we’ve been led to believe it is. Feel free to try it, but don’t expect for it to yield any magical health benefits.

No single food is a ‘superfood.’ It is the overall balance of our intake that matters. As with any high fat product, coconut oil should be used sparingly, only occasionally and as a minor ingredient, rather than as a replacement for staple oils such as rapeseed, olive and sunflower oils. Coconut oil is not strictly speaking a poison – but nor is it something which should pass our lips without caution.

Source: Men’s Health with inputs from the Conversation