Coconut oil has been widely used as a beauty aid for years. Pressed from the white fleshy part, or “meat,” of coconuts, it’s been used in both skin moisturizers and hair treatments. It’s even been promoted as a possible sunscreen, deodorant, wound treatment and insect repellant.
But the accolades haven’t stopped there. Coconut oil recently started getting more press and finding its way into kitchens due to claims that it’s a healthier cooking oil for frying, sautéing and baking. And there’s more.
“About five years ago, a celebrity doctor said coconut oil could help with weight loss by increasing metabolism and helping you feel full longer after eating,” said Ashley Simper, a registered dietitian at OSF HealthCare. “From there, the claims kept coming, such as it being a cure for Alzheimer’s and promoting it as a mouthwash to ‘pull’ bacteria from the mouth.”
Given all the positive attention, it’s no surprise that this oil has found its way into many people’s homes. But does this alleged miracle fruit really live up to the hype?
Impact on heart health
“Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear to be the case,” Simper said. “Regarding the claim that coconut oil is a healthier cooking oil, it’s actually extremely high in saturated fat, which can raise your body’s LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol and increase your risk for heart disease.”
One tablespoon of coconut oil has about 10-14 grams of saturated fat, depending on the brand. Based on a 2,000-calorie diet, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) recommends limiting intake of saturated fats to no more than 10% of total daily calories, or about 16-22 grams of saturated fat per day. But the American Heart Association goes even further by recommending a stricter limit of 13 grams per day.
“While coconut oil can still be used in moderation, there are a number of healthier cooking oils that you should use much more frequently that can easily be found at most grocery stores,” Simper said. “Olive, peanut, canola and avocado oils are all high in unsaturated fats that help lower your body’s LDL cholesterol level, which improves heart health.”
Proponents of coconut oil also point to the fact that it contains high levels of antioxidants as another benefit. These powerful, disease-fighting compounds are found in certain foods and beverages and contribute to a decreased risk of many diseases, including heart disease, cancer and diabetes. However, the healthier cooking oils mentioned above also contain high levels of antioxidants, so this isn’t an advantage for coconut oil.
Other health claims
Many of the claims about coconut oil helping with weight loss, Alzheimer’s symptoms and other ailments are based on the potential benefits of a type of fat within coconut oil called medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). However, there simply hasn’t been enough research to confirm these assertions.
With that being the case, how do wild claims like these take hold in people’s minds?
“This happens exactly how other fad diets begin,” Simper said. “Usually, celebrities or non-nutrition experts in the medical field start endorsing or pushing a product or idea. And since the general public is always searching for the next quick fix, they’re eager to try it. That’s why it’s always important to do your own research and speak to a registered dietitian to get the whole story.”