Is Coconut Oil All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
by Elle Penner, MPH, RD
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Is Coconut Oil All It’s Cracked Up to Be?

I admit I was late to join the coconut oil craze, but it’s quickly become a staple in my pantry—and not just because it’s delicious.

Still, coconut oil is very high in saturated fat (about 90%)—a type of fat that has, for quite some time, been associated with elevated blood cholesterol levels and increased heart disease risk. The Dietary Guidelines tells us to limit this nutrient, yet a growing body of research has caused a rethink of whether or not saturated fat deserves such a bad rep. So what is the deal with coconut oil then?

While it’s high in saturated fat, we know that not all saturated fats are created equal—and this is where some of the believed health benefits of coconut oil come into play.

To simplify things, here’s an overview of some of the coconut oil’s most noteworthy benefits:

Easy-to-Use Energy Source

Lauric acid, the predominant saturated fat in coconut oil, is a medium-chain fatty acid. The body uses these types of fatty acids differently than the long-chain fatty acids that make up a large percentage of other dietary fats. Medium-chain fatty acids are processed by the liver and are quickly converted into energy by our cells, which is why studies like this one from 2003, and another from 2008, suggest that these particular fatty acids may be beneficial for weight loss––in moderation of course.

Good Cholesterol Booster

As far as blood cholesterol levels are concerned, consumption of solid fats that are rich in lauric acid, like coconut oil, have been linked to increases in both “good” (HDL) and “bad” (LDL) cholesterol levels. Which means, although your “bad” cholesterol may go up, so your good cholesterol will increase, too. And evidence suggests coconut oil may have a neutral, or even slightly beneficial effect, on cholesterol levels when used in place of other saturated, or trans-fats.

Antimicrobial & Antioxidant Advantages

Coconut oil has long been revered for its bug-fighting properties. Though more research needs to be done in this area, coconut oil contains compounds shown to prevent or fight certain viral, bacterial, and fungal infections, such as the flu, bronchitis, yeast infections, acne, and more. Additionally, coconut oil, particularly unrefined or virgin coconut oil, contains phenolic compounds which may offer health-protective, antioxidant properties.

Convenient for Cooking

As far as cooking is concerned, coconut oil works well in a variety of dishes and is particularly good for baked goods and medium-heat sautes. The mild taste makes it a popular choice for curries or other dishes that benefit from a hint of tropical flavor.

A Simple Skincare Solution

In the bathroom, coconut oil can serve as a gentle makeup remover and moisturizer, especially during cold winter months when skin is more susceptible to dryness and irritation.

So, is coconut oil all it’s cracked up to be?

Due to its high lauric acid content, virgin coconut oil is a great substitute for other types of saturated fats, such as lard and butter, and trans fats, such as vegetable shortening. But coconut oil is still a fat, and all fats are calorie-dense, so it’s best when used in moderation.

Which brings me to my next point. It’s great for cooking, but it’s probably best not to rely on just one cooking oil. Using it in addition to other types of cooking oils will not only produce better results depending on the type of dish you’re preparing, but will also provide a variety of other important fats, like heart-healthy Omega-3s.

Bottom Line: If it’s not in your kitchen cabinet already, consider adding coconut oil to your collection.

Purchasing Tip: Choosing unrefined, or virgin, coconut oil will provide the most benefits since processing practices can cancel out some of its favorable properties.

Do you use coconut oil at home? What are some of your favorite ways to use it?

About the Author

Elle Penner, MPH, RD
Elle Penner, MPH, RD

Elle is a nutrition and wellness writer, recipe developer, blogger and nutrition consultant whose favorite things include her camera, carbs and quality time with her toddler. For more from this busy mama, check out Elle’s lifestyle blog or connect with her on Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook.

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