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Coconut Oil: The Ultimate Fat, or Completely Terrible for You?

By Casey Thaler, B.A., NASM-CPT, FNS
July 9, 2018
Coconut Oil: The Ultimate Fat, or Completely Terrible for You? image

Coconut oil – one of the most popular fats in the modern American lifestyle. Exploding from obscure product to true phenomenon, this tasty treat is also extremely controversial. At the same time that coconut oil saw a huge increase in American consumption, related products (like coconut water) also greatly expanded in popularity. For example, coconut water on its own is now a $300 million dollar per year industry. For a product that barely existed (in terms of sales) a decade ago - this is truly an overnight phenomenon.

But back to coconut oil. It has been called a "miracle cure", a “cure for Alzheimer’s”, and almost everything in between. In 2015 alone, Americans spent over $220 million on coconut oil products. However, last year, the American Heart Association announced that coconut oil may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. Attracting headlines from all over the world, this report was seen as a public declaration that the coconut oil era may indeed be over. Aligning with this, were decreased sales of over 25% last year, compared with the record high sales of 2015 for coconut oil.

But what does the scientific evidence say? The main scientific claim against coconut oil (according to the AHA, and others) – is that it simply has too much saturated fat. But we in the Paleo community know that saturated fat is not a problem. If we look at the scientific data for coconut oil, we see a myriad of studies that show its ingredients (like medium- chain triglycerides) actually show vast effectiveness for weight loss, as well as an increase in metabolism.[1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9]

In fact, some studies have even shown that less calories are likely to be consumed, overall, when eating coconut oil on a regular basis. This is likely due to the various hormonal, cellular, and other effects that coconut oil (and its compounds) have on the body. Other scientific studies have shown that coconut oil actually raises HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol), and decreases waist size, as well as overall body mass.

Other research shows that coconut oil has positive impacts on visceral adiposity specifically, as well as up to a 30% decrease in C-reactive protein (CRP) - which is one of the biggest indicators of overall inflammation in the body. A 30% decrease in C-reactive protein is by far one of the strongest pieces of scientific evidence that backs up the claim that coconut oil is a ‘miracle cure’ – but the benefits do not stop there.

Other scientific studies have shown that some compounds within coconut oil may help with preventing the buildup of plaques and peptides, which lead to Alzheimer’s disease.[10,11,12,13,14,15] Specifically, researchers have looked at preventing the buildup of beta-amyloid plaque, and how regular consumption of coconut oil can help with this process. Research has shown that coconut oil indeed does protect neurons from beta-amyloid buildup, specifically by improving cellular signaling in critical cell pathways. Coconut oil also contains another beneficial compound called monolaurin, which is formed when coconut oil is broken down inside the body.[16,17,18,19,20] This compound is part of how coconut oil has such great anti-viral and anti-inflammatory effects within the body.[21,22,23,24,25,26,27,28]

While a ketogenic diet is not strictly Paleo, coconut oil also has vast benefits for those undertaking a keto approach to nutrition, because of its high concentration of brain-boosting compounds, like lauric acid (a medium- chain fat).[29,30,31,32,33] Biochemically, compounds like this are extremely important for ketosis, as they go from your small intestine, right to your liver, and are broken down for rapid energy. This biochemical difference is a large reason why the medium- chain triglycerides found in coconut oil are greatly beneficial for your brain, as well as for a ketogenic approach to eating. It should also be noted that these types of triglycerides are almost entirely found solely in coconut oil – not amongst other cooking fats.

So, is this simply a case of mistaken identity, and poorly reported (and understood) science? Perhaps, but the decline in coconut oil sales may also have to do with outside trends and marketing. As soon as coconut oil started to take off in popularity, food manufacturers saw a huge opportunity. They ramped up production and marketing efforts with other “healthy” oils, so suddenly consumers were buying grass-fed butter, extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil – and many other products. Many times, consumers replaced coconut oil with these products - leading to a decline in sales numbers for coconut oil itself.

Of course, as a personal trainer and nutritionist, I just want consumers to use healthier oils, and to avoid canola oil (and other inflammatory choices). But the negative backlash against coconut oil troubles me, largely because it seems to still be a re-tread of a war that was already lost – the war against fat, in general. For decades, largely due to Ancel Keys, we were told that all fat is bad for us, and the only way to be healthy was to follow a low- fat, high- carb diet. Of course, this fallacy led us to the highest level of obesity the world has ever seen, and scientists finally realized that carbs and sugar were the real demons.

Nonetheless, the backlash against coconut oil still somehow persists. There is quite a bit of money in unhealthy food and beverage promotion, and as large corporations like Coca-Cola and Pepsi panic over increasingly falling sales, they tend to ramp up attacks on these healthier choices. The science is clear, however. Soda is by far the biggest contributor to obesity (especially in children) and has very well-documented negative effects throughout our body.

While nothing is truly a ‘miracle cure’ and must work within the context of an overall healthy eating approach, coconut oil and its compounds do indeed have vast benefits for weight loss, neuronal functioning, and an increased metabolism. It also has a very high smokeburn point, meaning it can be used to cook just about anything, without breaking down into more inflammatory compounds. Coconut oil ultimately may not be a miracle cure - but it is still one of the healthiest oils to consume, as well as to cook and bake with. It fits into a Paleo Diet perfectly - and is a great addition to a diet filled with real, whole foods. Enjoy responsibly!


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