Dear Alice,

I've heard a lot of people talking about how coconut oil is supposed to be really good for you, but I also know that it has a lot of saturated fat. Is it actually healthy or not?

Dear Reader,

It’s definitely not a nutty idea to ask more about this oil! Unfortunately, though, the evidence on whether or not coconut oil is healthy is resoundingly… inconclusive. Despite its growing popularity (which may stem from excitement about its perceived health benefits), there is a lack of evidence to support a number of health claims made about coconut oil (more on those in a bit). While consuming it in small quantities is unlikely to cause any adverse effect, it’s worth noting that it’s composed of 90 percent saturated fat, is high in calories, and has a tendency to increase overall cholesterol levels. All that to say, it’s recommended to keep consumption in moderation. Read on for more specifics on the nutritional value, related health claims, and potential benefits of this tropical oil!

First, the science behind coconut oil may help explain why only consuming moderate amounts is recommended. Compared to other fats and oils, coconut oil’s saturated fat content is considered high. These high levels of saturated fat generally lead to an increase in LDL (low density lipoprotein) cholesterol levels, which in turn increases overall cholesterol and the risk of heart disease. While coconut oil may increase LDL cholesterol, it’s also thought to increase HDL (high density lipoprotein) cholesterol relative to other saturated fats. It’s ability to do so comes from one of its main components, lauric acid, which is a medium chain triglyceride (MCT) that results in fewer fat deposits in the liver. So, while lauric acid increases HDL levels, coconut oil's high saturated fat also increases LDL levels, thereby increasing overall cholesterol. The extent to which coconut oil's HDL boosting effect outweighs the increase in LDL hasn’t been fully determined, but being high in calories and having the tendency to drive up overall cholesterol levels may make it less healthy relative to other oils. That being said, plant-based oils are more than just fats. They contain antioxidants and other substances, so their overall health effects may extend beyond changes in LDL and HDL. Thus, more research may be needed to get a fuller picture of the overall health effects of consuming coconut oil.

So, given its inconclusive health benefits, why would people want to consume or use coconut oil? There are some claims about coconut oil that do hold up. As a treatment for eczema, for example, coconut oil has been shown to be more effective than mineral oil in easing symptoms in children. Additionally, coconut oil may help with moisturizing dry hair. However, the demand for coconut oil is an example of the superfood trend. There’s an abundance of blog posts, articles, and websites dedicated to the subject of coconut oil, making a number of health claims. These claims include suggestions that coconut oil may treat diseases, help with weight loss, or act as an immune booster. Unfortunately, there isn’t sufficient evidence to back up these specific claims. Emerging evidence may hold promise for some health concerns, but more research is necessary to further explore effectiveness for these and other conditions:

  • Breast cancer treatment: Some early evidence suggests that taking virgin (not refined) coconut oil taken during chemotherapy may improve some measures of quality of life for advanced breast cancer patients.
  • Newborn health: There may be a correlation between massaging premature newborns with coconut oil and their weight gain and growth. Similarly, rubbing coconut oil into premature babies may help ward off infections.
  • Head lice: Some research suggests that a blend of oils, including coconut oil, may be as effective at treating head lice in children as chemical insecticide sprays.
  • Dry skin: Some evidence suggests that applying coconut oil to the skin twice daily may help with dry skin relief.

List adapted from MedlinePlus.

All this to say, it’s wise to stick with evidence-backed claims and the idiom of “everything in moderation” when it comes to coconut oil. If you find coconut flavor delicious, there’s no issue consuming coconut oil occasionally. Cooking with it may even be called for specifically, given recipes for certain dishes and flavors. Still hungry for more about healthy fats? Check out Q&As in the Go Ask Alice! Nutrition and Physical Activity archives for more information. You might also consider scheduling an appointment to talk with a registered dietitian or a health care provider to learn more about the latest research and to see what role coconut oil can play for your personal health.

Coconuts are a tough nut to crack. Hope this cracked open the case on this inquiry for you!

Alice!

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