Chances are, if you’ve been a part of the paleo, CrossFit, or just about any fitness-related subculture, you’ve heard your colleagues go on and on (and on) about the benefits of coconut oil, the miracle dietary fat source. Cook with it! Put it in your coffee! Rub some on your face, it’s great for your skin!
But really, how great is coconut oil for you? Will adding some to your diet in moderate amounts really keep you lean and healthy? Well, let’s take a closer look at the supposed health benefits of coconut oil.
Coconut oil wasn’t always seen as God’s gift to health nuts. In the 1980s, the FDA put the kibosh on consuming too many fats, saturated fats in particular. Coconut oil, being extremely rich in saturated fats, like most tropical oils, was demonized, viewed as a waistline-expanding, heart-disease-inducing poison.
Today, we know that the partially hydrogenated oils that companies used to replace tropical oils like coconut oil are full of trans fats, which can actually be quite detrimental. After saturated fats were determined to be healthier than their trans fat cousins, coconut oil became a staple in the cooking industry, where chefs switched from frying foods in lard and butter to this allegedly healthier alternative.
So, let’s take a look at the type of saturated fats found in coconut oil. The predominant lipid is lauric acid, which can raise both types of cholesterol (HDL and LDL). However, a study was conducted that showed that subjects who ingested an ounce of coconut oil a day had more favorable HDL to LDL ratios. Other studies that have been done show coconut oil improves blood lipid profiles in general, reducing the total amount of cholesterol in rats and oxidizing (or getting rid of) LDL cholesterol.
Although there are differentiating schools of thought on how bad cholesterol is for you in general, if you have high LDL levels, it might not be the best idea to start chugging the stuff by the gallon.
Coconut oil is also said to be a great addition to your diet if you’re looking to lose weight, but there are no convincing long-term studies that back this claim up. In fact, since most oils (including this one) are higher in caloric content, consuming them indiscriminately might actually lead to weight gain rather than loss.
The bottom line is that even though coconut oil won’t make your heart palpitate or bring you to your knees in the middle of your Whole Foods grocery haul, it probably isn’t the magical slimming food that some make it out to be. The most sensible approach to weight loss is to not base it off of any one particular “miracle” food, and to just eat a balanced, sensible diet, rich in nutrients and healthy fats from a variety of sources.