Coconut oil gets a bad rap because it mainly contains saturated fat, but proponents claim it helps fight disease. Is it really bad for your health? Get the facts.
by Rich Maloof for MSN Health & Fitness
Many readers of MSN Health & Fitness took issue with our advice in the article “The Cholesterol Connection” to avoid coconut oil because it is a saturated fat. We listened, even appreciated, the flood of feedback in our inbox. This week, “Reality Check” takes a closer look at both sides of the debate over this tropical oil. Is it bad for you?
In health circles, coconut oil remains a subject of controversy.
Proponents of coconut oil cite the health and longevity of tropical populations that have been consuming large quantities of coconut oil for centuries. They maintain that coconut oil has been unfairly caught up in the fat-fearing food fads of the past few years.
In contrast, the Food and Drug Administration has informed consumers to avoid coconut oil, a saturated fat. (The American Medical Association agrees that saturated fats should be limited in our diets.) Evidence in favor of coconut oil has not yet met the FDA’s standards for recommendation; studies are regarded as either inadequately controlled or not extensive enough to be conclusive.
Coconut oil comes under fire because its main component is saturated fat.
Coconut oil is challenged on two fronts. First is the erroneous belief that all dietary fat becomes body fat—not all “fat in” equals “fat on.” Second is that it’s a saturated fat like the fat in beef, cheese, eggs and butter. “Saturated fatty acids tend to raise levels of LDL cholesterol (‘bad’ cholesterol) in the blood. Elevated levels of LDL cholesterol are associated with heart disease,” an FDA spokesman reminds us.
True enough, but studies increasingly indicate that a heart-healthy diet does not exclude saturated fat; rather, an appropriate balance of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats is best. Only a mixed-fat diet promotes a healthful ratio of LDL to HDL—the “good” cholesterol—and lowers the risk of heart disease..
Processed or “partially hydrogenated” coconut oil is unhealthy.
One thing both sides agree on is that when coconut oil is hydrogenated it becomes a trans fat, and trans fats are bad news. Trans fats have been closely associated with heart disease because they not only increase LDL cholesterol but impede the body’s ability to utilize HDL.
Unless you are cooking with virgin coconut oil, the only coconut oil in your diet may be hydrogenated, since that’s the form it takes in snack foods and nondairy creamers.
It’s been suggested that coconut oil bolsters the immune system.
Coconut oil may have properties like a natural antibiotic that renders some viruses, bacteria and fungi inactive. The work of Mary G. Enig, a biochemist who also has a doctorate in nutritional sciences, is often referenced by coconut oil enthusiasts. Enig says that the body uses an ingredient in coconut oil to make the disease-fighting substance monolaurin. (Read her speech “Health and Nutritional Benefits From Coconut Oil”). Infants use breast milk to make monolaurin, which keeps them from getting certain infections.
However, the FDA has strict guidelines for validating the health benefits of foods and drugs, and told MSN Health & Fitness that the administration “has not been petitioned to review claims for coconut oil.” More strongly, the Department of Health and Human Services sends warning letters to Web sites that market coconut-oil products based on therapeutic claims.
The assertion that coconut oil can cure hypothyroidism appears to be untrue.
The idea that coconut oil could cure an underactive thyroid was promoted in a 2003 article in Woman’s World magazine as well as other materials on coconut oil; however, the sources for these pieces have been questioned. According to experts at Mayo Clinic, “there is no evidence that coconut oil stimulates thyroid function. In fact, some research suggests that coconut oil may have a negative impact on the thyroid.”
The debate on coconut oil continues …
Used in moderation and in its virgin, unprocessed form, coconut oil may ultimately be revealed as a harmless, neutral food. But the dust is still settling on this battlefield.
“Reality Check: Coconut Oil” has been reviewed for accuracy by MSN Health & Fitness nutrition expert Keecha Harris, Dr.P.H., R.D., president of Harris and Associates.