Are the Benefits of Coconut Oil a Fad or Fab?

It’s been labelled a superfood with amazing medicinal benefits but is coconut oil really all it’s cracked up to be?

Coconut oil is claimed to have health benefits including helping people lose weight, aiding digestion and boosting your immunity. 

Bupa dietitian Rosalyn D’Angelo looks at what the evidence says.

What is coconut oil?

Coconut oil is an edible pure fat extracted from coconut flesh and processed to form an oil. It’s commonly used in cosmetics and cooking. Advocates claim it contains a ‘healthy’ saturated fat known as lauric acid.

However experts say there’s no evidence that coconut oil protects against heart disease. And health bodies including the Heart Foundation advise against eating it regularly because of its high levels of saturated fat.

Claim 1: Coconut oil helps you lose weight

Those in favour of coconut oil claim the ‘healthy’ fatty acid known as lauric acid helps your body burn more kilojoules faster.
However D’Angelo says, like other fats, coconut oil is extremely energy dense.

“A gram of fat, whether it’s saturated or not, is going to be the same 37 kilojoules per gram,” she says.

“The other thing to remember with fat is that it keeps us quite full. So if you were to have a teaspoon of butter or olive oil or whatever it is before a meal you might find that your appetite isn’t as much because it’s quite filling.” 

“But [coconut oil] is still very energy dense so in terms of weight loss there’s just no evidence,” she says. 

Claim 2: Coconut oil is easier to digest

Coconut oil is claimed to help settle your stomach, ease bloating and benefit those with digestive disorders.

D’Angelo says while some of the saturated fat of coconut oil (the Lauric acid part) may act differently to other saturated fats in the body, there's no strong evidence to back these claims.'
granola type food

Claim 3: Coconut oil can boost your immunity

It’s also claimed the ‘healthy fats’ in coconut oil contain antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral properties.

D’Angelo says there might be benefits to applying [coconut oil]  topically, as it’s a common ingredient in soaps, lotions and creams used for skin care.

“Tea tree oil can be put on spots to reduce the redness. You wouldn’t then drink tea tree oil to see the benefits internally,” she says.

Claim 4: Coconut oil cooks at high temperatures 

Coconut oil has also been praised for having a high smoke point which prevents it from burning and releasing toxins.

“We don’t usually reach those temperatures in our home kitchen; you’d be more likely to reach those smoke point temperatures if you were deep frying in a vat in a commercial kitchen,” she says, adding that extra light olive oil has about the same smoke point as coconut oil.

The verdict

D’Angelo says there are no large-scale, valid or reliable studies to date supporting the health claims attributed to coconut oil.

There is however strong evidence that shows monounsaturated oils (e.g. olive oil) and polyunsaturated oils (e.g. omega-3 oils found in oily fish) are protective against heart disease.

D’Angelo says small amounts of coconut oil are probably not harmful when part of a healthy, well-balanced diet.

“I’m open to coconut oil proving itself. But at this point in time the evidence behind olive oil is so strong and it’s so much cheaper.”

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