While many nutrition experts warn that coconut oil has a high saturated fatcontent and is a potential artery-clogger, the tropical oil is embraced by followers of the popular ketogenic diet, and is great for the skin.
What Is Coconut Oil?
Coconut oil is a tropical oil derived from the flesh of coconuts. In stores, you’ll see both virgin and refined coconut oil. Virgin coconut oil is less processed than the refined version, which preserves its sweet tropical flavour. Refined coconut oil goes through more processing, which leads to a more neutral smell and flavour.
Coconut Oil Nutrition Facts
These are the nutrition facts for a 1 tablespoon (tbsp) serving of coconut oil.
- Protein: 0 grams (g)
- Fat: 5 g
- Saturated fat: 6 g
- Carbohydrates: 0 g
- Fibre: 0 g
- Sugar: 0 g
This is very similar to other oils. For instance, 1 tbsp of olive oil has 119 calories and 13.5 g of fat.
Compared With Olive Oil, Is Coconut Oil a Healthy Fat?
Although coconut oil has a similar nutritional profile to other cooking oils, the main difference lies in the specific types of fats it contains. The majority – 83 percent – of the fat in coconut oil is saturated fat, the kind typically found in animal products like meat and dairy. In olive oil however, only 14 percent of the fat is saturated.
Saturated fat tends to be solid at room temperature and is often considered unhealthy because there is evidence that diets high in saturated fats raise LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels, which can increase the risk of heart disease.
Conversely, unsaturated fats, either monounsaturated or polyunsaturated, remain liquid at room temperature and are considered healthier because in moderation, and especially in place of saturated fats, they have been shown to have a beneficial effect on heart health.
Meanwhile, the same amount of olive oil contains less than 2 g of saturated fat. For that reason, many experts say olive oil is a healthier choice.
Because of its saturated fat content, coconut oil has gained a reputation as an unhealthy, artery-clogging oil, and many experts still recommend avoiding it. But in recent years, some researchers have questioned whether saturated fat is as unhealthy as previously thought, and there’s been renewed interest in coconut oil as a potential healthy option.
Possible Health Benefits and Risks of Coconut Oil
The health benefits of coconut oil aren’t so cut-and-dried; in fact, it’s a very controversial topic. One Harvard University professor commented that coconut oil is reines Gift, or “pure poison,” in a talk she gave in Germany. (In the viral video, the professor, Karin Michels, also says in German that the trendy oil is “one of the worst foods you can eat.”)
On the one hand, coconut oil advocates acknowledge that it’s high in saturated fat, which has been implicated in increased heart disease risk. But they point out that there’s something unique about the saturated fat found in the tropical oil: It’s rich in a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid, which may behave differently from other saturated fats.
Why? These fatty acids may have a different impact on cholesterol levels than other saturated fats. One study notes that while saturated-fat-rich coconut oil raises total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels more than unsaturated plant oils, it didn’t do so by as much as butter.
One randomised clinical trial looked at the health result of consuming about 1.75 ounces of extra-virgin coconut oil, butter, or extra-virgin olive oil daily for four weeks. Much as previous research has shown, butter upped LDL levels more than coconut and olive oils. Coconut oil also increased HDL levels more than butter or olive oil. While this wasn’t a study on weight loss (so no one was told to cut calories), the researchers noted that no one in the groups lost (or gained) weight or belly fat by adding any of these fats.
Concerns about coconut oil’s saturated fat prevent many experts from recommending it. Indeed, top nutrition and health researchers have recommended that people replace saturated with unsaturated fats to reduce heart disease risk.
Likewise, a review and meta-analysis on the health effects of coconut oil suggest that people avoid it because of its high levels of saturated fat, which they found raise LDL cholesterol significantly more than other types of (non-tropical) cooking oils, making you more prone to conditions like heart disease.
So the facts as they stand are that the effect of coconut oil on health isn’t quite clear.
The reality may be that when placed in the typical standard American diet (dubbed the SAD diet), coconut oil may behave differently.
The entirety of your eating habits may matter more than whether or not you include this oil.
Baseline heart disease rates may be lower in South Asian cultures, which frequently consume coconut oil, and that may not be the case if the oil is included in any diet, research suggests.
“Observational evidence suggests that consumption of coconut flesh or squeezed coconut in the context of traditional dietary patterns does not lead to adverse cardiovascular outcomes. However, due to large differences in dietary and lifestyle patterns, these findings cannot be applied to a typical Western diet,” the authors of one review wrote.
Another plus of coconut oil is that it remains stable under heat, meaning it’s not as likely as other oils to oxidise and create harmful compounds like free radicals during cooking.
Different types of coconut oil are suitable for different cooking methods. Virgin coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit (F) — meaning you can heat it up to that temperature before it begins to smoke and oxidise. Refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point, of 400 degrees F, allowing you more leeway.
Is Coconut Oil Good for Weight Loss?
Medium-chain fatty acids like lauric acid are quickly broken down by the body and converted into energy, which is why the oil is often included in weight loss diets. A few small studies suggest that it may benefit your waistline, but in moderation, it doesn’t have any measurable effect on BMI one way or another. Long-term effects on weight loss aren’t known. Plus, just because something may be metabolised quickly doesn’t mean you can have a field day. Coconut oil still contains calories, and eating more than your body needs will likely result in weight and fat gain.
Overall, research has been underwhelming and inconsistent.
But one study did find that supplementing with coconut oil for eight weeks reduced belly fat better than safflower, chia, and soybean oils in women who had obesity.
In anothersmall study, men with obesity consumed 1 tbsp of either coconut or soybean oil per day while eating the same number of calories. After 45 days, there were no changes to the body composition in either group, though those eating the coconut oil increased their HDL levels.
Another small randomised controlled trial in men with metabolic syndrome found that substituting about an ounce of virgin coconut oil for existing dietary fat did not affect waist circumference at the end of the study.
How to Use Coconut Oil in Your Beauty Routine
Beyond cooking, coconut oil really shines as a beauty product. You can use it on your hair as an in-shower mask to boost moisture, or smooth a bit on dry hair to tame frizz. In addition, one study suggests that the oil’s antimicrobial properties may support scalp health to treat dandruff.
On skin, coconut oil can be used as a lip balm or as a body moisturiser.
Even better, there are science-backed reasons to apply coconut oil topically. A past double-blind study compared virgin coconut oil with olive oil as a moisturiser for people suffering from atopic dermatitis, or eczema (an inflammatory skin condition with symptoms like redness and itchiness) and found that coconut oil reduced symptoms better than olive oil.
Coconut oil was also superior in clearing staphylococcus aureus (or a staph infection) from the skin (in 95 percent of cases) compared with olive oil (in 50 percent of cases), suggesting that the tropical oil has antifungal and antiviral properties.
Parents can be confident about slathering it on their kids’ skin, too. According to an earlier study, in children with atopic dermatitis, participants who used virgin coconut oil for eight weeks experienced more relief of skin dryness than those who used mineral oil. In fact, 93 percent of those using coconut oil saw a moderate or excellent improvement, while 53 percent of those using mineral oil did.
Bottom line: If you have a jar of coconut oil in your kitchen, you may want to keep one in your bathroom, too.