FAQ: I've heard coconut oil is the new superfood and can help with weight loss, even though it's high in saturated fat. Is this true?



There are many misconceptions regarding the health effects of coconut oil which is extracted from the kernel of coconut palm.  Coconut oil is mostly (91%) saturated fat. Because of its high saturated fat content it is slow to oxidize making it resistant to fatty acid “breakdown”. As such it is commonly used in cooking, especially for frying.

The majority of the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid. The structure of this type of fat is called a “medium chain triglyceride (MCT)”. Lauric acid and other MCTs are digested and handled by the body in a different way than most fats that are “long chain” (i.e. polyunsaturated fatty acids). Oils with MCTs provide quick energy for the body and therefore may be less likely to be stored as body fat. MCTs are a source of “quick” fuel and appear to behave more like a carbohydrate than a fat (Assuncao et al. 2009. Lipids. 44:593–601).

Much of this research is very preliminary and still needs to be confirmed in further clinical studies.  Some health professionals argue that the studies being performed are for short periods of time, the number of study participants is too small, and many of the results stated have not been significant enough to prove any benefit to coconut oil consumption. And since coconut oil, like all oils is high in calories, it is premature to recommend it as a part of a weight loss diet.

Overall, the fatty acid profile of coconut oil is not deemed as healthy.  In comparison with flaxseed oil which has a high level of the essential fatty acid (EFA), omega 6 linoleic acid (about 16%) and the EFA omega 3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic (ALA, 55-57%), coconut contains no omega 3 and only 3% omega 6 fats. The high levels of saturated fatty acids and very low levels of polyunsaturated fats (the EFAs) can lead to increased risk of heart disease.

Due to its very high saturate levels, many health organizations advise against the consumption of coconut oil, including the United States Food and Drug Administration (https://web.archive.org/web/20140201190357/http:/www.fda.gov/Food/IngredientsPackagingLabeling/LabelingNutrition/ucm282425.htm);

The World Health Organization (http://whqlibdoc.who.int/publications/2005/9241546727.pdf);

the International College of Nutrition (Singh et al. 1996. J Cardiovasc Risk 3 (6): 489);

the United States Department of Health and Human Services (Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010);

the American Heart Association (http://newsroom.heart.org/news/no-change-in-aha-recommendations-on-saturated-or-poly-unsaturated-fat);

the British National Health Services (http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/coronary-heart-disease/pages/prevention.aspx)

and Dietitians and Canada (http://www.dietitians.ca/Your-Health/Nutrition-A-Z/Heart-Health/Healthy-Eating-Guidelines-to-Prevent-Heart-Disease.aspx).  These recommendations are made based upon decades of research that have shown a relationship between the intake of saturated fatty acids and an increase in blood cholesterol levels, especially LDL (or "bad") cholesterol levels. Saturated fat consumption has also been linked to higher risks of heart disease and stroke.

Several studies confirm that in contrast to coconut oil, dietary flaxseed inhibits atherosclerosis, the plaque build-up in arteries that can lead to heart disease. Dupasquier et al. (2007. Am J Physiol Heart Circ Physiol 293: H2394) reported that flaxseed has powerful anti-inflammatory actions. In an animal model that closely represents the human atherosclerotic condition, a 10% flaxseed-supplemented diet (FX) was compared to a diet with 5% coconut oil (CS) for 24 wk.  The CS mice exhibited elevated levels of plasma cholesterol, triglycerides, and saturated fatty acids and an increase in plaque development. Supplementation of the cholesterol-enriched diet with 10% (wt/wt) ground flaxseed lowered plasma cholesterol and saturated fatty acids, increased plasma ALA, and inhibited plaque formation in the aorta.

Research is more sound and established in backing the health benefits of the polyunsaturated EFAs in flaxseed.  It is important to remember that it is the total diet or overall eating pattern that is most important in disease prevention. Flaxseed has been shown to play a very important role overall in health and wellness.