Coconut Oil: Good or Bad For You? The Controversy Continues!

Over the past few years, I have been hearing A LOT about coconut oil. Some people use it for practically everything, others believe it is going to be the end to all; then there are the ones who have no idea what to do anymore so they stick to what they know, butter and/or olive oil.

This food product is a hot commodity on the shelves and I am assuming this has a lot to do with the higher fat, higher protein, lower carbohydrate diet trends that are all the buzz right now. People are very creative and like to use coconut oil for almost everything. However, many still worry and believe it poses as a health concern to society because of the extremely high saturated fat composition.

Not All Fats are Created Equal

Let’s take a step back for a moment and do a brief overview on some basics of fat, then we will dive into coconut oil. All fats are initially made up of fatty acids, these are carbon-hydrogen chains. These fat chains are categorized by how long they are, how many carbons are in the chain, and whether these chains are straight or contain double bonds. We have three types of fat that are in our diet: saturated, unsaturated, and trans fat. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature; this is because it contains no double bonds or “kinks” in their carbon chain. Unsaturated fats have one double bond (monounsaturated) or multiple double bonds (polyunsaturated), these kinks allow for the oils to be liquid at room temperature. Trans fat is pretty much made in a lab and should be avoided all together, but we can talk more about that at another time. Fats can then be categorized even further, we have short chain fatty acids (SCFAs), medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs), and long chain fatty acids (LCFAs) which are determined by the number of carbons each chain of fatty acids contain.

Coconut Oil Fat Breakdown

The thing about coconut oil is, it is extremely high in saturated fat, approximately 92%. However, in coconut oil, the saturated fat is largely composed of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs). MCFAs are medium-sized fat molecules that consist of 6-12 carbons. This matters because the amount of carbon (more or less than 12) significantly affects how it is digested in the body. The body is able to absorb short- and medium-chained fatty acids quickly, allowing them to bypass the fat storage pathway; MCFAs are sent directly to the liver to be metabolized rapidly and used for energy by the brain and skeletal muscles.

We now see why coconut oil is all the rage, it has a high content of MCFAs and viewed as a quick source of energy!

MCFA verse MCT

Are medium chained fatty acids in coconut oil and medium chain triglyceride oil the same?

A lot of people tend to think that coconut oil is the same as MCT oil. They are close, but not identical (some of their DNA matches, but not quite all of it). Yes, coconut oil has MCFAs in it, however MCT oil is a more concentrated source with being nearly 100% MCFAs. This is big when it comes to performance for athletes or for when you want to feel full and have sustained energy instead of that buzz crash feeling that tends to happen with high sugar snacks. MCT oil is found sold on the shelf and sometimes in the probiotics cooler while also being found in palm oils, grass-fed butters, cheese, whole milk, and full-fat yogurts.

Coconut Oil is Not Bad for You!

Coconut Oil Pros:

  • Hair and skin care
  • Antibacterial properties
  • Anti-inflammatory properties
  • High in antioxidants
  • Minimally processed: extra virgin
  • Great source of MCFAs

However…

Coconut oil is not purely made up of MCFAs. It is also made up of LCFAs, approximately:

  • 62% of coconut oil is MCFAs
  • 38% of coconut oil is LCFAs

A few things to note about this:

Fats that do not have double bonds or “kinks” in its carbon chain can pack into the cell membrane tightly which can manipulate membrane fluidity (makes it more ridged). Studies have suggested that this can increase risk of heart disease, cancer, and other chronic diseases. Certain forms of this fat can raise cholesterol which can also contribute to heart disease. LCFAs and VLCFAs are some of the biggest culprits.

  • Coconut oil is 92% saturated fat while grass-fed butter is 63%
    • For every 1% increase in total energy intake from saturated fat, a 2.7 mg/dL increase in plasma cholesterol levels have been predicted
  • One tablespoon of coconut oil is approximately ~120 calories, 14g of fat (12g saturated fat)
    • Fat is the most calorically dense macronutrient at 9 kcal/g
    • These calories can add up quickly during cooking and adding to recipes

Take Home Message:

Like other fats, coconut oil is very high in calories, a positive energy balance can contribute to unwanted weight gain if we are not careful. If you are wanting to add some coconut oil for that tasty, coconutty flavor or use it to make lotions or soaps, I am all for it! Although I do think coconut oil can/should be a part of our diet in moderate amounts, I must say, there still isn’t enough long-term evidence for it to be considered the miracle food. The studies are weak and overblown with media hype at the moment, and there is still a lot for us to learn about coconut oil and fats in general.

If looking for the energy effect for MCFAs, the current research-supported supplementation protocol is consuming 1 tablespoon (20g) or pure MCT oil, or 5 teaspoons of coconut oil 1-3 times/day with food. Warning: may cause some digestive issues when you eat in large quantities!

Keep an eye out for new research though, coconut oil might have something to teach us yet!

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