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Is Coconut Oil Healthy? Bursting the Myths

Is Coconut Oil Healthy? Bursting the Myths

A common question regarding coconut oil often comes up, “Is coconut oil unhealthy because of the high amount of saturated fat it contains?”. 

The American Heart Association (AHA) issued a report advising against using coconut oil. “Coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of Cardiovascular disease (CVD), and has no known offsetting favorable effects”, claimed the authors. 

However, we disagree and present some research evidence to bust this myth. Let us walk through the remarkable benefits of coconut oil. 

The Truth About the Benefits and Risks of Coconut Oil

While it is a fact that coconut oil contains a high amount of saturated fat, which raises cholesterol levels, the linkage between high cholesterol and CVD has been questioned. 

Dr. Aseem Malhotra, an NHS cardiologist, claims in his article, “Saturated fat is not the major issue”, in the British Medical Journal. He distinguishes between large, buoyant (type A) LDL particles and the small, dense (type B) particles associated with CVD. The reduction in LDL from reducing saturated fat intake appears to be specific to large buoyant (Type A) particles, which are not implicated with CVD.

So, the AHA believes coconut oil is unhealthy due to a misguided thesis: Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol, and LDL cholesterol causes heart disease. Therefore, anything that raises LDL cholesterol is bad. The only problem is that the data and research do not support this hypothesis.

In recent years, there have been a total of at least 17 meta-analyses and systematic reviews, plus 5 non-systematic reviews that have failed to find a clear link between saturated fats and heart disease.

Further, a study suggests that coconut oil predicted a beneficial lipid profile-raising HDL, lowering triglycerides and small LDL cholesterol particles. Studies have shown that a diet rich in saturated fats lowered CVD risk factors due to improved HDL and triglycerides to HDL ratio. 

Indeed, the 2015 USDA Dietary Guidelines removed any upper limits on dietary fat and eliminated any restrictions on dietary cholesterol. “Cholesterol is not a nutrient of concern for overconsumption.”, they say.

Coconut oil is a rich source of vitamin E and polyphenols. It has high amounts of lauric acid and caprylic acid, which are excellent for ketosis. This makes it an excellent choice for people on a keto diet. Virgin coconut oil is made by cold-pressing fresh coconut meat to extract the oil. 

Saturated Fats and Refined Sugar

A high amount of saturated fats from coconut oil is not bad in itself; however, it comes down to how you consume it. When people eat them on a diet with refined grains (high sugar causes high starch), they experience problems due to the inflammatory effects of sugar

The overall diet significantly influences the effect of saturated fats (consumed through coconut oil) on the body. If saturated fats are combined with a well-balanced and nutrient-dense diet, their effects significantly vary when combined with a diet high in sugars, refined grains, and starches.  

Using saturated fats with a diet high in carbohydrates, such as foods high in sugars and starches, leads to inflammation. Inflammation is one of the major root causes of chronic diseases, including certain types of cancers, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s disease.

In addition, cooking methods contribute to the effect of saturated fats on health. When coconut oil is used for deep frying, i.e., preparing french fries or fritters, it results in the creation of harmful compounds. These compounds can further lead to chronic inflammation.  

Another important factor to consider is individual variability. Each individual has different genetics and metabolic health. Based on these factors, their bodies respond differently to saturated fats. 

Top 10 Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

There are a plethora of studies proving the benefits of coconut oil. Here, we have listed some of them with clinical studies: 

1. Increases Good Cholesterol

Good cholesterol (High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol) plays a vital role in maintaining your overall health, as it primarily contributes to reducing bad cholesterol in the body. It transports excess cholesterol to the liver for excretion. High levels of good cholesterol help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases. 

One of the major components in coconut oil is medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a kind of saturated fat. MCTs boost the levels of good cholesterol. 

A randomized crossover trial determined the effect of virgin coconut oil on plasma lipoprotein levels. The result suggested that there has been an increase in the levels of High-Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in healthy volunteers. 

Many studies suggest that MCTs have shown a positive effect on the total cholesterol to HDL ratio. Many healthcare professionals consider this ratio as a valuable marker while assessing the risk of heart disease. 

2. Controls Blood Sugar 

There is a study of a 66-year-old man with Type 2 diabetes to support this benefit of coconut oil consumption. The man with a history of Type 2 diabetes was given coconut oil supplementation, and he developed recurrent hypoglycemia and experienced a reduction in insulin therapy. 

This study suggests that the intake of coconut oil is likely to have a positive effect on blood sugar levels. This may be due to several anti-inflammatory properties of certain compounds in coconut oil. 

It’s crucial to keep in mind that further study is necessary to determine its impact on blood sugar levels before recommending its widespread consumption. 

3. A Source of Energy  

Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) are a quick source of energy. Long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) are transported to the required tissues (muscles or fat tissues) through the bloodstream. 

In contrast, MCTs directly go to the liver, serving as a quick source of energy. Hence, MCTs are often used in nutrition products for athletes, who are always on the lookout for quick energy sources that can be absorbed by their bodies quickly. 

4. Fights Candida 

Candida is yeast, a type of fungus commonly found in small amounts on the skin, mouth, and intestines. The balance of Candida is controlled by healthy bacteria. However, if this balance is disrupted, it leads to an infection called candidiasis. 

A vitro study found that virgin coconut oil’s antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties were effective against Candida. In this study, virgin coconut oil was used as an antifungal agent on Candida. 

Coconut oil contains capric acid, which serves as a natural treatment for candida and yeast infections. 

5. Helps Reduce the Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimer’s disease is a type of dementia and a brain disorder that weakens memory and the ability to think. In medical terms, this disease reduces the brain’s ability to produce its own insulin required to process glucose into energy. 

When the liver digests medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), it produces ketones that are easily absorbed by the brain for energy. Ketones eliminate the need for insulin to process glucose into energy and serve as the alternate energy source for the brain to function properly. 

As coconut oil is a great source of MCTs, its consumption can significantly reduce the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.  

6. A Rich Source of Antioxidant

Antioxidants play a vital role in reducing the risk of many diseases, including heart diseases and cancer. They are substances that protect the body against the damage of free radicals (unstable molecules). A large number of free radicals in the body can do serious damage to cells.  

Tocopherols, tocotrienols, phytosterols, flavonoids, and polyphenols are the major types of antioxidants found in coconut oil. They have anti-inflammatory and brain-protective effects. 

7. Antimicrobial Effects

Lauric acid (monolaurin) in coconut oil has antimicrobial and antifungal properties. It is a fatty acid that constitutes 50% of MCTs in coconut oil. It fights against the growth of bad bacteria that contribute to many diseases. Besides, some studies demonstrate that lauric acid acts as a bacteriostatic agent, preventing bad bacteria from multiplying. It serves as a bacteriocidal agent that destroys bad bacteria. 

Research suggests that the antimicrobial effects of lauric acid have the ability to fight against disease-causing microorganisms, such as 

  • Staphylococcus aureus
  • Streptococcus mutans
  • Streptococcus pyogenes
  • Escherichia coli
  • Helicobacter pylori

8. Helps Reduce Hunger and Weight Loss

Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) have the ability to reduce food intake. The body breaks down MCTs by producing small molecules called ketones. Ketones significantly alter the levels of hunger-inducing hormones like ghrelin. They also directly act on the brain’s chemical messengers without requiring the brain to produce its own insulin for processing glucose. 

As coconut is a no-carb oil with an energy-creating ability, it helps burn fats and calories and reduces appetite, which results in weight loss. 

9. Dental Health 

Oil pulling is a traditional remedy for improving dental health, freshening breath, and whitening teeth. It aims to reduce the growth of bacteria in the mouth, which may lead to tooth decay and gum diseases. 

Many studies have found the use of coconut oil to be a cost-effective solution in oil pulling for oral hygiene. The anti-bacterial properties of coconut oil’s lauric acid significantly reduce the count of bacteria in the mouth, primarily Streptococcus mutans.  

Moreover, when lauric acid combines with the saliva in the mouth, it forms a soap-like substance. It helps reduce the risk of dental plaque and gum inflammation and prevents cavities. 

10. Boosts Skin Health and Hair 

Coconut oil is also used for cosmetic purposes to boost skin health and improve appearance. It is helpful in treating dry skin by boosting moisture content and preventing excessive water loss. It improves skin function and protects it from external factors, such as infectious agents, chemicals, and allergens. 

One recent study found that applying virgin coconut oil to hands and leaving it overnight helps improve skin texture by locking moisture and preventing excessive dryness caused by alcohol-based sanitizers. 

Besides preserving skin health, coconut oil helps protect hair from damage. Applying coconut oil to hair and the scalp strengthens hair strands and prevents them from breaking under tension. 

The Bottom Line

Some people and studies claim that saturated fats in coconut oil increase bad cholesterol, which may lead to chronic diseases. However, combining saturated fats (coconut oil) with a nutrient-dense, balanced diet free of added sugars helps normalize cholesterol and reduce the risk for CVD, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and several other chronic diseases. 

Coconut oil is a great source of healthy saturated fats and has several amazing health benefits when consumed correctly. I recommend using extra virgin coconut oil. Just like any diet or food, it’s about what works for you. 

Dr Menka Gupta

IFMCP, MSc, MBBS

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