It’s been touted as a cure-all for everything from heart disease to belly fat, but our nutritionist says proceed with caution.
There’s no doubt coconut oil is having a moment — it’s been touted as a cure-all for everything from heart disease to the inability to squeeze into your jeans after the holidays! But at 117 calories, 14g total fat and 12g saturated fat (60% of the daily value) per one tablespoon, there’s reason to proceed with caution. Here, some of the most common claims that can be heard daily — debunked!
Claim #1: Coconut oil burns belly fat.
The Truth: No way, Jose. A few small-scale studies have linked downing extra-virgin coconut oil to decreased waist-circumference in individuals at risk for heart disease or diabetes, but mostly, participants had already started — and stayed — on a weight-loss diet before using coconut oil — which makes it difficult (not to mention, irresponsible!) to say that these results mean anything for the average Joe/Joanne like you and me. For now: Since plant-based oils of any kind are mostly made up of fat — using 1-2 tablespoons when cooking veggies, lean protein and/or whole-grains can help you stay full, making it easier to stick to any weight loss plan for the long-term.
Claim #2: Coconut oil revs metabolism.
The Truth: Again, in our dreams. The only truly dependable factor in changing your metabolic rate is to increase the ratio of lean body mass to free fat mass in your body (in other words: more muscles = increased metabolism). While some foods high in certain compounds such as caffeine may temporarily rev metabolism a teensy bit, coconut oil has yet to show any real results on that front. (And while we’re on the topic of caffeine, bulletproof coffee — a.k.a. coffee and coconut oil — is also a weight-loss dead end. Remember, cream is a mostly saturated fat, just as coconut oil is, so the more you add, the more calories your cup o’ joe contains.)
Claim #3: Coconut oil is anti-bacterial.
The Truth: About half of the fatty acids found in coconut oil are from a type of fatty acid called lauric acid, which has been linked to having antimicrobial, antifungal effects that may reduce risk of certain acute and chronic illnesses and diseases (e.g. a yeast infection vs. type 2 diabetes). But that’s no reason to guzzle enough coconut oil to bathe your internal organs in the stuff! Research is still ongoing on the topic, but since you’d have to consume high amounts of the oil to truly reap the benefits of it. And since dietary fat from all plant-based oils can rack up quickly (thus contributing to weight gain over time), it may not be worth the risk.
Claim #4: Coconut oil is heart healthy.
The Truth: Nope. But it won’t definitively increase your risk for heart disease, either. One tablespoon of coconut oil provides more than half the amount of saturated fat that the American Heart Association recommends per day! Foods that are high in saturated fat have been linked to been linked to increasing your total cholesterol in addition to your LDL (otherwise known as the “bad” cholesterol). In some studies, coconut oil helped to raise HDL (our “good” cholesterol) and total cholesterol — without necessarily affecting our LDL. But it’s not enough to make a recommendation across the board. Since other heart-healthy oils, like soybean, hempseed, extra virgin olive oil or rapeseed, a.k.a. canola have been linked to lowering LDL and total cholesterol overall, these options are still better alternatives for those at risk for heart disease.
Claim #5: Coconut oil is good for cognition.
The Truth: Can coconut oil make you smarter? I wish — I’d have chugged it by the gallon in grad school! But where there is some promise is in developing research that supports the use of coconut oil in reducing risk of Alzheimer’s disease progression in at-risk populations. That said, extra virgin olive oil (among others, such as corn oil) has also been linked to decreasing risk of dementia, cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases for the same reasons. Bottom line: Swap butter for plant-based oils that contain phytonutrients when you’re cooking at home.
Claim #6: Coconut oil is helpful for diabetics.
The Truth: Any time a diabetic consumes a source of protein or fat in conjunction with carbohydrates, you slow down the rate at which glucose is absorbed from your gut and into your bloodstream — meaning that it’ll stop your blood-sugar from spiking at the ready. Since coconut oil is a mostly saturated fat, diabetics may notice less of a sugar-spike when dousing any food in coconut oil … but that’s by no means a blood sugar cure-all. In fact, since diets high in saturated fat are also linked to risk of diabetes, those who overload on the stuff may be putting themselves even more at risk for chronic disease. While some studies have linked coconut oil use to decreasing diabetes risk by enhancing insulin sensitivity, most of these have only been conducted in animal models.
Claim #7: Coconut oil is high-cholesterol.
The Truth: Despite the fact that you may see plant-based oils with labels that claim “no cholesterol” on packaging, there should never be dietary cholesterol in a plant-based oil — or food, for that matter! Cholesterol is a hormone that is made in the bodies of all animals (humans included! — which is why you won’t (or shouldn’t!) see it in vegetarian foods. That small fact aside, that doesn’t stop food marketers from using it on labels — just know it’s a-okay to ignore.
Claim #8: Coconut oil has a very high smoke point.
The Truth: At around 350°F, coconut oil has a relatively low smoke point as compared to other plant-based, antioxidant-packed oils such as corn, canola, grapeseed, sesame seed, avocado, peanut and soybean oils. While it’s nutritionally similar to butter, it may be a better alternative to shortening for vegans or those who are severely lactose intolerant. Regardless, check labels on any plant-based oil that’s solid at room temperature — that’s a clear indicator of hydrogenation, which can have negative effects on your cholesterol and long-term heart health.
While coconut oil can be delicious, choose it for its flavor profile, not for its perceived health benefits. All plant-based oils are great for you! And since they each have a “place” in your kitchen, all of ’em— when consumed regularly and in 1-2 tablespoons per day — can help you stay healthy and maintain weight for the long-term.