Coconut Oil: Healthy or Hype?

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I recently walked into one of my favourite little boutiques on the Gold Coast, a destination notorious for it’s health-conscious, Lorna Jane-clad specimens, and came across a new product that, as a dietitian, made me roll my eyes…

Coconut oil capsules.

I must admit I picked the item up out of interest, as it was packaged in a trendy white shampoo container, with stylish typography slathered across the front (marketing that I’m sure a lot of people succumb to). “We all know the health benefits of coconut oil for healthy hair, skin and nails. Its good for the outside of your body as well as inside…” stated the label. Is it? Lets have a look at these claims and see if there’s any truth behind them…

What is coconut oil and why are we using it?

Coconut oil is made from dried coconut meat and is almost pure fat, providing about 3700kJ per 100ml of oil. One of the biggest reasons behind the rise in coconut oil’s popularity is the wave of new-age fad diets sweeping the western world, claiming that it assists weight loss, hair growth, energy levels and has anti-ageing properties. Diets such as paleo and veganism that shun dairy products have turned to coconut oil as an alternative to butter in cooking and baked goods. The problem with this is that people see a “raw vegan paleo snickers slice” at their local café and think that it is a healthy addition to their morning coffee ritual, when in fact it is probably just as high in saturated fat, sugar and energy as a conventional piece of cake. The benefit of these popular raw cakes and slices is that they may provide more vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber than traditional discretionary foods, however it is important to bare in mind that they are still a treat and should be consumed occasionally and in small amounts.

A little lesson in cholesterol, saturated & unsaturated fats

Coconut oil is composed of 92% saturated fatty acids, which have been linked to increased cholesterol and risk of heart disease. Cholesterol is a type of fat within the body, involved in lots of important processes such as making hormones, formation cells walls and producing bile acid. When it comes to measuring cholesterol levels, there are three types of cholesterol we look at:

• Low density lipoprotein (LDL)
• High density lipoprotein (HDL)
• Total Cholesterol

LDL is considered the “bad” type of cholesterol, which builds up in the arteries and increases risk of heart disease, while HDL is considered the “good” kind, as it helps move LDL away from the arteries and shuttle it back to the liver. Total cholesterol represents the sum of both of these in the blood. Saturated fats, found in animal products such as butter, cheese and meat, are known to increase LDL (bad) cholesterol, total cholesterol and risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats on the other hand, such as those found in olive and canola oils, nuts, seeds and avocado, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol while simultaneously raising HDL (good) cholesterol, thus lowering the risk of heart disease. Coconut oil is unique in that it has been shown to raise both HDL (good) and LDL (bad) cholesterol and therefore increasing total cholesterol. Hence, other plant oils such as olive and canola are still better choices when it comes to cooking and have additional polyphenol and antioxidant properties.

The Reality

At $29.99 that trendy shampoo bottle is a perfect example of why many people have been lead to believe that coconut oil is good for health and something we should be adding into our diets. It is important to remember however, that it is processed oil, which is high in saturated fat and energy, potentially causing weight gain and risk of other chronic diseases when consumed in excess. While fats have many important functions within the body, most people can generally get enough from a balanced diet rich in wholefoods such as lean meats, fish and poultry, dairy foods, vegetables, legumes, fruits, nuts and seeds.4 If you love the flavour of coconut like me, try adding a small amount of fresh or desiccated coconut to your dishes as it will provide less kilojoules and fat than the pure oil and other nutrients such as dietary fiber.

References

1 http://assets.heartfoundation.org.nz/shop/submissions/coconut-and-the-heart-evidence-paper.pdf
2https://daa.asn.au/smart-eating-for-you/smart-eating-fast-facts/nourishing-nutrients/where-do-i-find-saturated-fats-in-food/
3https://daa.asn.au/smart-eating-for-you/smart-eating-fast-facts/food-and-food-products/the-facts-on-coconut-oil-is-it-the-best-choice/
4 https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/food-essentials/how-much-do-we-need-each-day/recommended-number-serves-adults

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Caitlin Jamieson

Caitlin is an Accredited Practicing Dietitian who recently graduated from Griffith University with a Bachelor of Nutrition and Dietetics. Throughout her studies she has gained experience in a range of clinical and community settings and has a particular interest in sports nutrition, stemming from her active childhood and time as a competitive open water swimmer and triathlete. When not at work, you can find her down at the beach or checking out her local food scene with friends. Caitlin hopes to channel her passion for living an active lifestyle and enjoying all food in moderation into her career as a dietitian, motivating and helping people to achieve their goals and improve their health.