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On Your Health

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Is Coconut Oil Healthy?

It’s beloved by the Paleo and Keto diet sets and touted by many for health benefits ranging from better skin and hair to weight loss. Coconut oil has been trending for years, and enthusiasts credit it for all sorts of health and nutritional benefits.

A quick look around the internet and it’s easy to see why. Celebrities and influencers tout coconut oil as something just short of miraculous: a belly fat blaster, appetite suppressant, immune system strengthener, fighter of dementia and teeth cleaner. 

Conversely, coconut oil has famously been called ‘pure poison’ by Karin Michels, a professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. She cautioned that coconut oil poses a greater risk to heart health than lard.

The fact is, it's pure fat, as in literally 100 percent fat. Ninety percent of that fat is saturated fat, which is why coconut oil solidifies at cool or room temperatures. The Mayo Clinic reminds us that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, issued by the US Department of Agriculture and the US Department of Health and Human Services, recommends limiting saturated fat to less than 10% of calories a day. The American Heart Association recommends staying under 7% of daily calories.

Why? Saturated fat tends to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels in your blood. High cholesterol levels can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.
Saturated (and unsaturated) fats are made of small molecules called fatty acids. Of the many types of fatty acids, three are present in coconut oil. Lauric acid makes up almost half. Two others, myristic and palmitic, make up the rest. 

All three raise LDL and HDL cholesterol. HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol is referred to as ‘good cholesterol,’ because it scoops up extra cholesterol in the blood and carries it to the liver where it’s broken down and removed from the body. Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, AKA ‘bad cholesterol,’ can build up within the walls of your blood vessels, making them narrower. If a blood clot gets stuck in a narrowed vessel, it can cause a stroke or heart attack. 

But I keep reading that coconut oil is a ‘good fat’

Coconut oil is made by pressing either dried or fresh coconut meat. Oil from fresh coconut is called virgin and oil from dried coconut (also called copra) is called refined, although the terms are not regulated. Coconut oil contains no cholesterol, tiny traces of vitamins and minerals and no fiber at all. It does contain traces of beneficial plant sterols, which may help block the absorption of cholesterol in the body, but the amount found in a typical serving of coconut oil is too small to be healthful. 

Also, many of the health claims you’ve likely seen for coconut oil refer to research that used a special formulation of coconut oil made of 100% medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), not the commercial coconut oil most available on supermarket shelves. 

MCTs have a shorter chemical structure than other types of fats, and so are absorbed and used by the body rather rapidly. After digestion, MCTs make their way to the liver where they are quickly used for energy. The theory is that this quickly absorbed form promotes satiety and prevents fat storage. 

The clinker in that theory? Coconut oil contains mostly lauric acid, which is not an MCT. Lauric acid is absorbed more slowly and metabolized like other long-chain fatty acids. This means that the often-touted health benefits reported from a specially constructed MCT coconut oil that contains medium-chain triglycerides other than lauric acid cannot be applied directly to commercial coconut oils that are easily found in most grocery stores.

It gets worse. R.B.D. (refined, bleached and deodorized) coconut oil, which has been doused with chemicals and solvents before being subjected to high heat, raises cholesterol so quickly, brilliantly and consistently that scientists have used it as a control when experimenting with other fats. The harsh processing may destroy some of the good essential fatty acids and antioxidants.

All of that said, using coconut oil in moderation can be part of a healthy diet. And there are many fine uses for coconut oil that do not involve eating it.

Some of the many uses for coconut oil include the following.

Cooking. Coconut oil is terrific for sautéing, searing and even frying (depending on the grade). Be aware, though, that a tablespoon of coconut oil contains about six times the amount of saturated fat as olive oil.

Baking. Looking to incorporate coconut oil as a substitute for butter in baking? Terrific idea. It’s a staple in vegan desserts, but it’s delicious no matter your dietary constraints. Substitute coconut oil for other fats at a 1:1 ratio. Pro tip: unless you’re making pie crust, use room temperature ingredients when working with coconut oil. Because coconut oil solidifies when it’s below 76 degrees F, combining it with cold ingredients can cause it to seize.   

Oil pulling. This oral health routine involves swishing a spoonful of coconut oil around in your mouth, as you would when using mouthwash, for 15-20 minutes. Coconut oil is widely used for oil pulling because of its pleasant taste and antibacterial properties. Oft-described benefits of oil pulling may include reducing harmful bacteria in the mouth, reducing bad breath, slowing/reducing cavities and whitening teeth. It’s important to brush teeth after oil pulling to remove the oil.

Hair deep conditioner.  Mix a few tablespoons of coconut oil in its liquid form into your dry hair. Pop on a shower cap and let it work its magic for half an hour to overnight. Shampoo, style and admire your soft, shiny strands. For a quick defrizzer, rub a TINY dot of coconut oil between your hands and run your fingers through your hair.

Body moisturizer. Remember to stick with raw, ideally organic, virgin coconut oil. Use if on your hands and body as you would any lotion or body butter. 

 

If you have questions about how to achieve a healthy lifestyle, talk to your INTEGRIS Health doctor about specific recommendations for you. For more wellness content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.

 

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