The Truth About Coconut Oil: Science-Backed Health Benefits and Drawbacks

Coconut oil seems to be everywhere these days. Health food stores stock their shelves with it. Bloggers and influencers sing its praises for weight loss, brain health, and beyond. But is coconut oil truly a cure-all superfood – or just another overhyped fad?

In this post, we’ll dive deep into the science behind coconut oil. We’ll explore the research on how it affects your heart, brain, weight, immune system, skin, and mouth. You may be surprised at what we uncover. Let’s separate fact from fiction on one of the trendiest foods today.

An Overview of Coconut Oil and Its Uses

Before we dig into the benefits (and drawbacks) of coconut oil, let’s start with the basics. What exactly is coconut oil?

Coconut oil comes from pressing the meat of mature coconuts. This creates a white, solid fat at room temperature. Don’t let its texture fool you – coconut oil is highly saturated. In fact, it contains even more saturated fat than butter or lard.

Still, coconut oil has gained a reputation as a health food. Advocates claim coconut oil can help you slim down, prevent heart disease, improve brain health, and more.

Coconut oil becomes liquid at around 76°F. This makes it ideal for sautéing and baking. It’s also commonly used in packaged snacks and sweets. And coconut oil plays a starring role in natural beauty products like moisturizers and hair masks.

Let’s examine whether the science backs up the health claims around this popular oil.

Heart Health: The Truth About Coconut Oil and Cholesterol

Heart disease remains the #1 cause of death worldwide. This has led many people to turn to coconut oil as a heart-healthy choice. But what does the research say?

Coconut oil contains a type of saturated fat called lauric acid. Some research suggests lauric acid raises HDL “good” cholesterol more than other saturated fats like butter. This may lower heart disease risk.

However, coconut oil also appears to raise total and LDL “bad” cholesterol to a similar or greater degree than unsaturated oils and other saturated fats.

In one study, coconut oil increased HDL cholesterol more than butter and soybean oil. But it also raised total and LDL cholesterol levels more than soybean oil and as much as butter.

Other research found that coconut oil boosted HDL cholesterol more than unsaturated fats. But it increased LDL cholesterol compared to olive oil. The spike in bad cholesterol outweighed the rise in good cholesterol.

The verdict: While coconut oil may raise good HDL cholesterol, it can also increase bad LDL cholesterol. This may negate any heart-protective effects.

That’s why the American Heart Association recommends limiting coconut oil. They advise no more than 6% of daily calories from saturated fats like coconut oil.

When it comes to your ticker, coconut oil may not be as healthy as monounsaturated oils like olive, canola, and peanut oil. The best option is to use coconut oil sparingly as part of an overall heart-healthy diet.

Weight Loss: Can Coconut Oil Help You Slim Down?

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Next up: can coconut oil really help you lose weight? Many wellness gurus claim it revs up your metabolism and dulls your appetite. But the evidence is mixed.

Some research suggests the MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) in coconut oil may increase calories burned compared to long chain fats.

For example, one study found MCTs increased energy expenditure by over 100 calories per day compared to olive oil. Another study found MCTs increased satiety and reduced calorie intake more than other fats.

However, the effects appear small. One review concluded MCTs only increased calories burned by about 50-120 calories per day.

Plus, most studies use concentrated MCT oil, not coconut oil. Coconut oil only contains about 13-15% MCTs. The rest is longer chain fats.

Here’s another caveat: coconut oil packs a whopping 120 calories per tablespoon. Consuming large amounts can easily lead to excess calories and weight gain.

One study found coconut oil groups had significantly higher BMI and waist circumference compared to soybean oil groups.

The takeaway: MCTs may slightly boost metabolism and curb appetite compared to some other fats. But the evidence is limited and coconut oil is highly caloric. For weight loss, you’re better off focusing on overall calorie intake.

Brain Health: Can Coconut Oil Prevent or Treat Dementia?

Now let’s explore one of the most popular yet controversial coconut oil health claims: brain health.

Some research suggests the MCTs in coconut oil may provide an alternative energy source for malfunctioning brain cells in Alzheimer’s patients.

In one study, Alzheimer’s patients who took MCTs showed improved cognition after 45 and 90 days.

However, there’s currently no good evidence that coconut oil itself can prevent, treat, or cure dementia. Most studies use concentrated MCT oil, not coconut oil.

While coconut oil MCTs may provide temporary energy for impaired brain cells, they cannot stop or reverse Alzheimer’s disease. More research is needed.

The bottom line: Coconut oil MCTs may offer a supplemental energy source for Alzheimer’s patients in the short term. But there’s no proof coconut oil can treat or prevent dementia on its own.

Immune Support: Can Coconut Oil Fight Infections?

What about coconut oil and immunity? Some claim coconut oil has antimicrobial powers against viruses, bacteria, and fungi. But the evidence in humans is lacking.

Test tube and animal studies show lauric acid from coconut oil may have antimicrobial effects against a variety of pathogens.

But there’s currently little evidence that consuming coconut oil can prevent or treat infections in people. Most research uses concentrated lauric acid or MCTs.

One study did find that coconut oil reduced plaque and gingivitis more than olive oil. But more research is needed on coconut oil’s effects on immunity.

The verdict: Coconut oil shows promise against microbes in lab settings. But there’s not enough evidence to recommend it for immune health in humans.

Skin Health: The Pros and Cons of Using Coconut Oil on Your Skin

From hair masks to body lotion, coconut oil is ubiquitous in natural beauty routines. What are the real benefits and risks of using coconut oil on your skin?

On the plus side, research suggests coconut oil may:

  • Moisturize skin: The fatty acids in coconut oil can provide moisture and improve skin barrier function.

  • Reduce inflammation: Coconut oil shows anti-inflammatory effects in animal studies. This may help inflammatory skin conditions.

  • Treat skin infections: The lauric acid in coconut oil demonstrates antimicrobial effects when applied to the skin. This may help treat acne, dermatitis, and wounds.

However, there are some potential drawbacks to using coconut oil on your face:

  • Clogged pores: Coconut oil is highly comedogenic. For some people, slathering coconut oil on the face can lead to clogged pores and breakouts.

  • Allergic reactions: Contact dermatitis and allergies to coconut oil, though rare, are possible. Patch test before applying to your face.

When it comes to your body, coconut oil makes an excellent natural moisturizer. But proceed cautiously before using on acne-prone facial skin.

Dental Health: Can Coconut Oil Pulling Improve Oral Health?

Coconut oil pulling has become a recent health fad. But does swishing coconut oil in your mouth really benefit dental health?

A few studies suggest coconut oil pulling may:

  • Reduce plaque and gingivitis: Coconut oil pulling lowered plaque and gingivitis more than mouthwash in one study.

  • Prevent cavities: Coconut oil demonstrated antimicrobial effects against cavity-causing Streptococcus mutans bacteria.

  • Treat bad breath: Coconut oil reduced bad breath in teenagers, possibly by altering oral bacteria.

  • Improve overall dental health: Coconut oil pulling improved oral hygiene compared to regular tooth brushing in multiple studies.

However, researchers note more rigorous research is still needed to back up these preliminary findings. There’s not enough evidence yet to recommend coconut oil pulling.

The takeaway: Early studies on oil pulling with coconut oil are promising. But there’s not enough research to prove coconut oil improves dental health.

Coconut Oil: The Final Verdict

Coconut oil has become hugely popular in health circles. But is it worthy of its “superfood” status?

The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Here’s a quick summary of the science-backed benefits and drawbacks:

Potential Benefits

  • May raise good HDL cholesterol
  • MCTs may slightly increase calories burned
  • Shows antimicrobial effects in lab studies
  • May moisturize skin and help skin conditions
  • Early research shows possible oral health benefits

Potential Drawbacks

  • Raises bad LDL cholesterol
  • High in calories so may cause weight gain
  • No proof it can prevent or treat dementia
  • Minimal immune health benefits proven in humans
  • Can clog facial pores and cause breakouts
  • More research needed on oil pulling benefits

Overall, coconut oil may offer some advantages. But there are also realistic limitations.

Your best bet? Use organic, virgin coconut oil in moderation as part of an overall healthy lifestyle. Coconut oil makes a nice addition to a balanced diet and beauty routine – but it’s no miracle cure-all.

At the end of the day, no single food holds the key to perfect health. But including a variety of minimally processed, nutrient-dense foods can take you pretty far. Where coconut oil fits into that equation is up to you.