Coconut oil will forever go down in history as one of the most hyped “superfoods” of the 21st century. And there’s a big cohort of wellness bloggers and lifestyle gurus to thank for that.
So, is coconut oil as good or bad as everyone believes?
Firstly, let’s start by saying there is no single food that will cure disease or help you to lose weight. Adding a tablespoon of coconut oil to your morning coffee will not single-handedly lower your risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
Studies on the diet are complicated for many different reasons, which is why the field of nutrition research is so controversial. It’s very hard to control nutrition studies and single out one food as having a positive impact on our health. This is because we don’t just eat one food. We would never have only coconut oil in our diet. Food is also not the only thing to impact our health and risk of disease.
So, back to ze lovely bunch of coconuts. When considering whether coconut oil is good, we need to take a look at it’s chemical structure. To start with, coconut oil is 100% fat. There’s literally nothing else in it.
What is a fat made of?
All fats are made up of a chain of ‘fatty acids’, which can vary in length. These are classified as either long, medium or short chained based on how long they are (duh) and how many double bonds they have. We’ll call these LCFA’s (long), MCFA’s (medium) and SCFA’s (short) because I can’t be fucked to type their full name every time. SCFA’s are considered to have 6 or fewer carbon atoms, MCFA’s have 6-12 carbon atoms, and LCFA’s generally have 12 or more carbon atoms.
LCFA’s can be saturated or unsaturated, whereas all MCFA’s and SCFA’s are only saturated. Historically, unsaturated fats have been promoted as being healthier, because they have a double bond in their chain. The theory behind this is that the double bond creates a “kink” in the fatty acid, so these fats can’t stack as easily in our blood vessels. Monounsaturated fats (e.g. olive oil, avocado, nuts) have one kink, and polyunsaturated fats (e.g. walnuts, sunflower and flax seeds, oily fish) have multiple kinks. Differently, saturated fatty acids have no kinks, so they can pack quite densely together. This is why foods high in saturated fats are solid at room temperature (e.g. butter) and foods high in unsaturated fats are liquid (e.g. olive oil).
However, aside from the kinks, the length of the fatty acid also plays a big role in how the fat behaves in our body. SCFA’s and MCFA’s (both saturated) are more easily absorbed from the gut by the liver, so they can be broken down more quickly. The benefit of this is that they can be used much faster and more easily by the body as energy, so they are less likely to be stored as fat tissue. They can also can make us feel fuller more quickly and therefore less likely to keep eating. This is why everyone is a bit obsessed with MCFA’s at the moment.
LCFA’s, however, don’t get absorbed directly by the liver. Instead, they are broken down and packaged into transporters that carry the fat around the body. Eventually, these transporters will take the fat to the liver, but on the way the transporters tend to drop off the fat in other areas of the body too (think UberPool for fats).
What fats are in coconut oil?
Like we said above, coconut oil is 100% fat, 92% of which is saturated.
It’s also the largest natural food source of MCFA’s, which is why everyone goes bonkers about it. In studies, MCFA’s have been shown to help with weight loss, diabetes control, increased performance in endurance exercise, lowered cholesterol and better brain/memory function. Sounds great, right?
However, commercially available coconut oil is actually only ~65% MCFA’s (with the remainder being LCFA’s). In all the research, they either used a modified version of coconut oil which is 100% MCFA’s or MCFA oil supplements which are created from versions of food oils. So really, they cheated. This means that you would have to eat a shit ton of coconut oil to get the percentage of MCFA’s that have been shown to give those benefits listed above. And eating a shit ton of coconut oil will just make you fat, because it’s made of 100% fat.
Another interesting point is that ~50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are ‘lauric acid’, which is made of 12 carbon atoms. This means it sits right on the cusp between a LCFA and a MCFA, which is where a lot of the debate around coconut oil comes in: does lauric acid act like a MCFA or a LCFA? The research is still conflicting on this, but basically there isn’t enough scientific proof that your store bought coconut oil will provide the same positive health benefits seen with pure MCFA’s.
What about people who’ve been eating it for centuries?
The coconut oil fan club also use the argument that societies in which coconut oil makes up a big part of their traditional diet (e.g. India, Philippines, Polynesia) have been observed to have less cardiovascular disease. However, we definitely can’t say that this is solely due to the coconut oil. Firstly, these groups don’t eat processed coconut oil, but rather the whole coconut as coconut meat or pressed coconut cream. Their traditional diet also has way less processed foods, a large amount of fruit, vegetables and fish – so it’s the combination of these foods that provides benefit, not the coconut oil itself (which they don’t even eat, so it’s a stupid argument).
The bottom line…
High quality studies in humans using commercially available coconut oil are currently lacking, so we can’t conclude that coconut oil itself has all these wonderful health benefits. While we know coconut oil is delicious and perfectly safe to include in moderation in our diet, it’s unlikely that simply adding coconut oil to a Western diet will have any additional positive health benefits. So, having a bullet latte to kick start your day is simply going to add a bucket load of calories and ruin the taste of your morning coffee, rather than reduce the likelihood of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Having said this, when it comes to high-heat cooking, coconut oil is a good choice because of it’s large composition of saturated fat. This means it has a high smoke point and remains stable when heated at hot temperatures. It’s also fine to rub that shit on your skin or put it in your hair, if you want. But you know, moisturiser and shampoo are fine too.
So, to conclude: there is no single food that is ever going to lower your risk of disease or help you lose weight. Instead, it’s a combination of the right foods, in the right quantities, which will turn you into Superwoman.
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