Coconut Oil: Why You Should Question the Hype

Coconut Oil: Why You Should Question the Hype

Filled with saturated fat, can this "super food" really reduce the risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's and more?

Coconut oil is being touted as a cure-all in many health circles—but is it actually beneficial to your health? Carra Richling, from Ornish Lifestyle Medicine, weighs in.

Coconut has become an increasingly popular “super food.” After preliminary research claimed that coconut could cure everything from heart disease, to Alzheimer’s and even aid in weight loss, coconut oils, margarines, milks, yogurts and ice creams have flooded the market.

There’s a lack of validated scientific research on the benefits of coconut, so it remains unclear whether or not the trend is the result of marketing hype. The Alzheimer’s Association notes that there is not enough credible science to support coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease; the American Heart Association (AHA) does not recommend the use of coconut oil because it is high in saturated fats. The AHA recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 13 grams a day, which is one tablespoon of coconut oil.

Whats in coconut oil?
Coconut oil is extracted from the “meat” inside the hard-shelled fruit of the coconut palm. Made up of 90 percent saturated fat with 13 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, it has one of the highest concentrations of saturated fat of any food—even more than butter! In comparison, butter is about 64 percent saturated fat, and beef fat and lard are only about 40 percent saturated fat.

It’s well known that saturated fat has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease and is linked to higher incidence of heart disease and stroke. Not all saturated fats are the same, however. They differ based on the number of carbon atoms present, and this structural difference affects the impact of the fat on cholesterol levels and our health.

  • Butter contains butyric acid, which has 4 carbon atoms.
  • Coconut oil and palm kernal oil contain lauric acid with 12 carbon atoms.
  • Cow’s milk and other dairy products contain myristic acid with 14 carbon atoms.
  • Palm oil and meat contain palmitic acid with 16 carbon atoms.
  • Cocoa butter and coconut meat contain stearic acid with 18 carbon atoms

Lauric and myristic acids are most commonly found in “tropical” oils, such as coconut and palm kernel oil, and dairy products. The saturated fat in meat, eggs, cacao and nuts is primarily the triglycerides of palmitic and stearic acids. Lauric tends to raise both LDL and HDL levels, while stearic acid has been shown to have a neutral effect on cholesterol levels.

The roles of lauric and myristic acid
Coconut oil is about 50 percent lauric acid and 16 percent myristic. Lauric acid is a medium-chain saturated fat, also referred to as a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT). MCTs are more easily assimilated, digested and converted to energy. The MCTs in coconut oil are what have linked to weight loss and cognitive function for Alzheimer’s disease. Some studies have shown that lauric acid has a neutral effect on cardiovascular health because it tends to raise both HDL along with LDL, showing a neutral impact on the cholesterol ratio.  The overall role of lauric acid on cholesterol and health remains unclear.

Myristic acid, which is also a component of coconut oil, is the same type of saturated fat found in beef, dairy and many processed foods. It has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol and risk of vascular disease.

Coconut oil and the Ornish Reversal Program
The research conducted over the last 35 years for the Dr. Dean Ornish Program for Reversing Heart Disease has proven through validated studies that a very low-fat, whole food plant-based approach can reverse heart disease and other chronic disease. The recommendations continue to support very limited saturated fat from only plant-based sources.

Looking for other ways to eat more healthily? Reverse heart disease and diabetes, lose weight and reduce your risk of cancer with these tips from Dean Ornish .

This content was originally published on Ornish Living.

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