30 January 2014 Coconut Fat: Miracle or Marketing Hype?

Coconut oil:

  1. High calorie and high saturated fat nightmare, promoted by clever marketing funded by coconut producers
    Or
  2. Health miracle food, enjoyed for hundreds of years by thin healthy South Pacific islanders, who are thin and healthy because of coconut oil.
    Or
  3. Just another source of fat and calories.
Likely answer: #3

We love miracle foods, and the more exotic the better. Remember acai, that tropical miracle fruit that was supposed to fix obesity? Coconut is the latest entry, promoted with the image of lean smiling South Pacific islanders, who eat coconut and are not obese.

Except that image is now false. Obesity rates in the South Pacific are some of the highest on the planet. On Nauru it’s over 70%. Tonga is not far behind at almost 60%. Type 2 diabetes and other obesity-related health problems are rampant.

How can this be? Coconut consumption has little to do with this situation. The entire diet of people living in the South Pacific has changed radically in the past 100+ years, as traditional diets of fish, fruit, tubers and coconuts was replaced by imported processed foods. Coconut promoters claim that this traditional diet was high fat, thanks to high consumption of coconut. But, in fact the diet was low fat, as well high fiber. Coconut was part of the diet, not the major focus.

In addition to their low fat, modest calorie and high fiber diet, South Pacific islanders were lean and fit because of their physically demanding lifestyle of fishing and tending crops. Now the traditional active lifestyle and the traditional diet of fish and local plant foods has been replaced by a sedentary lifestyle and high calorie imported foods. Coconut oil can’t protect people from the ill effects of high calorie intake and lack of exercise.

Despite this real life example, coconut oil is promoted as a health food and weight loss aid. One website claims coconut is a “safe” (?) source of energy that will boost thyroid function, increase metabolism, promote weight loss. There are no studies that back up those claims. Rather, coconut true-believers cherry pick a few facts about coconut oil and weave those into a simplistic arguments to support their beliefs.

Consider MCTs

Coconut oil is a fat, a highly saturated fat. Saturated fat intake is linked to elevated cholesterol and heart disease. But coconut fat is uniquely higher in a type of fat called medium chain triglycerides (MCT). MCTs are shorter chain lengths than the saturated fats from animal sources like beef and butter. Shorter chain fats are absorbed and metabolized differently from longer chain fats. Coconut advocates claim this unique metabolism makes coconut fat healthier, or at least not unhealthy. There is little evidence for this claim. In fact quite the opposite: many studies do show that coconut fat raises cholesterol.

What about weight loss? In one small study, 40 obese women were put on a low calorie diet plus daily walking. Half the group took 30 ml capsules (about 2 TB) of coconut oil and the other half got soy oil. After 12 weeks, both groups had lost weight. But the coconut oil group had lost an extra inch around their waists. Does this mean coconut oil made them lose more belly fat? Maybe, maybe not. The groups were very small. Women in both the groups lost weight. And all the women had abdominal obesity. An inch difference on women with 35+ inch waists could just be statistical noise. More studies with more women would help answer this question. Abdominal fat is a risk for metabolic syndrome, so an intervention that targets that type of fat would be useful.

Clearly, adding coconut oil to your existing diet is just adding calories. That’s unlikely to result in weight loss.

Another miracle claim is that coconut oil can cure Alzheimer’s disease. Again, the unique metabolic effect of MCTs is cited as the alleged reason. The explanation goes like this:

  • MCT fats are metabolized into chemicals called ketones.
  • When brain cells are starved of glucose, they can use ketones for energy
  • Alzheimer’afflicted brain cells are starved for energy
  • AND that energy starvation is the cause of Alzheimer’s disease
  • Therefore MCT fats will fix the problem.

Unfortunately, Alzheimer’s disease is not simply a problem with energy supply to the brain. Nevertheless, anecdotes about Alzheimer’s patients who improve (or at least don’t get worse) after dosing with coconut oil are easy to find on the Internet.

Other than these individual anecdotes, there is no scientific evidence for this claim. The claims have been around for several years, so it’s reasonable to expect that, if coconut oil were a miracle cure, there would be reports in the media of people who were cured. Yet so far no one patient has come forward who has been cured of Alzheimer’s disease by eating coconut oil. Some studies are planned to evaluate the effect of ketones on brain cell metabolism in Alzheimer’s patients, and results should clarify whether there is any benefit. Nutritional aspects for 1 TB of coconut oil:

  • Almost 120 calories
  • No protein or carbohydrate
  • No fiber
  • No nutrients (vitamins or minerals) to speak of
  • Primarily saturated fat, high concentration of MCTs

Should you eat coconut?

Coconut is a food, and coconut oil can be used for some cooking uses, mostly for frying. Until solid research proves otherwise, think of it like any other saturated fat – limit use. Marketing based on the image of healthy and lean South Pacific islanders is misleading at best – the traditional active lifestyle and low fat/fish-and-plant-based diet contributed to that image, not a high consumption of coconut.

Don’t just add coconut oil to your existing diet unless you really want more calories. To control calories, substitute coconut oil for other fats. Keep in mind, coconut fat is chemically unique and may not work the same as liquid vegetable oils or animal fats for cooking.

Donna P. Feldman MS RDN

Nutrition journalist at Radio Nutrition

Co-host: Walk Talk Nutrition podcast.

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Foods & Recipes/Oils Nutrients/Fats

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