Ask Dr Libby: Is coconut oil good for us?
Q: Is coconut oil healthy or not? There are a lot of different opinions on this. Regards, Matt
A: Thanks for your question, Matt. Depending on who you talk to (or what you read), coconut oil may be touted as a health-promoting superfood or a serious threat to your health. And it's no wonder people don't know what to believe with the sheer amount of conflicting information on this topic.
Coconut oil has a very different fatty acid composition to most other edible oils. It is comprised of about 90 per cent saturated fat, and the majority of this is in the form of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs; medium-chain fatty acids joined to a glycerol backbone). Other dietary fats are largely in the form of long-chain triglycerides, in which the fatty acids have a longer carbon chain.
All you need to understand about this, is that MCTs are digested differently to long-chain fatty acids – they are absorbed directly into the blood and go straight to the liver, so in a healthy person, they tend to be used efficiently for energy and may be less likely to be stored as body fat. Long-chain fatty acids are absorbed via the lymphatic system.
The main fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid. This is a medium-chain fatty acid, which is also found in breast milk and has potent antimicrobial properties, so coconut oil may help to protect against certain types of infections. There are also some studies that suggest that coconut oil may aid weight management.
Due to the structure of saturated fats, including the fats found in coconuts, they are very stable at higher temperatures, more so than polyunsaturated vegetable-based oils. Saturated fats do not contain any double bonds in their structure whereas the polyunsaturated fats do, meaning the latter can be more readily damaged during cooking. Hence, it can be wise to cook with monounsaturated fats such as olive oil (stable to between 180-210 degrees Celsius) and/or ghee or coconut oils that have an even higher heat tolerance.
The argument against coconut oil relates to its high saturated fat content and a potential effect on blood cholesterol levels. However, diet is only responsible for about 20 per cent of the cholesterol in your blood (the liver is responsible for the other 80 per cent, so taking amazing care of your liver is essential for supporting a healthy blood lipid profile) and the link between saturated fat and risk of cardiovascular disease has been dramatically called into question over the past couple of years.
Reducing saturated fat alone does not necessarily reduce risk of heart disease, but we know that eating plenty of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables does, along with nourishing "real food" fats such as those found in avocado, olives, nuts and seeds. If you have an unfavourable blood lipid profile, I cannot encourage you enough to work with an experienced healthcare professional to get to the heart of what is causing this.
Focusing on one food or one nutrient generally isn't helpful; coconut oil isn't going to completely transform your health, positively or negatively – no one food will. It is our overall dietary pattern that is most important for our health and wellbeing, so choose real, whole foods (especially plenty of colourful vegetables) that nourish you.
Excessive consumption of any one food (even nutritious foods) is not healthy, so variety is an important concept. The body requires different types of fats for optimal health, so enjoy some coconut oil if this nourishes you, but be sure to include other essential fats as well (from foods like oily fish, flaxseeds, chia seeds, and walnuts) as part of a nutrient-dense way of eating.
Dr Libby is a nutritional biochemist, best-selling author and speaker. The advice contained in this column is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalised advice from a health professional. See drlibby.com