The hype surrounding the health benefits of coconut oil is hard to miss. The Guardian reports that celebrity endorsements have helped raise UK sales of coconut oil over the past four years from £1m to a staggering £16.4m last year. But are the claims of the oil’s health benefits true? Or are some of these a double-edged sword?
Coconut oil as essential fatty acid source
Coconut oil is seen as a source of essential fatty acids that help the body absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K), known as lipids which are stored in the body for future use. This may sound great, however, coconut oil is also one of the richest sources of saturated fat - the British Heart Foundation claims it is around 86% saturated fat, which is one-third more than butter at around 52%. NHS says that consuming a lot of saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels and increase the risk of heart disease.
In addition to this, the NHS health guidelines recommend that the average woman between 19-64 years of age shouldn’t eat any more than 20g of saturated fat a day, and for an average man aged 19-64, this should be no more than 30g of saturated fat a day. Coconut oil contains around 13 grams of saturated fat in one tablespoon, meaning if the average woman had just two tablespoons of coconut oil, she would be consuming 6 grams over the recommended maximum amount per day. The American Heart Association (AHA) has also warned that it contains the same level of saturated fat as beef dripping.
Coconut oil increasing ‘healthy’ cholesterol levels
A meta-analysis by Maastricht University’s Human Biology Department concluded that coconut oil has high levels of lauric acid which, when ingested, leads to higher levels of the ‘healthy’ version of cholesterol (High Density Lipoprotein, HDL), which is linked to lower stroke and heart disease rates.
However, because of the high level of saturated fat that coconut oil contains, the NHS recommends lowering its intake, as it can increase the ‘bad’ cholesterol levels. Heart UK has also advised people to avoid using coconut oil altogether in cooking or as a dietary supplement if they want to lower their blood cholesterol levels.
Alzheimer’s treatment and cure
According to the Alzheimer’s Society, there have been claims that coconut oil can treat or even cure Alzheimer’s disease. This is based on a theory that coconut oil acts as an alternative energy source for the nerve cells in the brains of Alzheimer sufferers that aren’t able to use glucose to produce energy efficiently and therefore ‘starve’.
However, the Alzheimer’s Society warns that there is not enough scientific evidence to back up this claim. The clinical trial held did not have enough people enrolled to give sufficiently robust results, and it has subsequently been discontinued.
The Alzheimer’s Society also mentions evidence suggesting that consuming coconut oil could lead indirectly to increased levels of the protein acetylcholinesterase, whose high levels are associated with the presence of Alzheimer’s disease, meaning that coconut oil could be detrimental, rather than a treatment for people with Alzheimer’s.
Other health benefit claims
- Coconut oil has been shown to reduce some skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis in a double-blind study conducted by the Makati Medical Centre’s Department of Dermatology;
- The International Journal of Dermatology published a study in 2013, showing how coconut oil improves the barrier function of skin with atopic dermatitis (also known as atopic eczema); a common long-term chronic condition which causes the skin to become red, itchy, dry and cracked.
Although some brands and celebrities endorse coconut oil as the latest miracle food, the findings presented in this post seem to show that more evidence is needed to back up some of these health claims. In fact, health organisations such as the NHS and Heart UK warn about consuming coconut oil as a healthy food due to its potential unhealthy effects. It’s very important to do your own research and question any health trends promoted in the media.