Is It A Healthy Choice for Cooking?
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil refers to the oil extracted from the edible, fleshy kernel (“meat”) of a coconut. In recent years, coconut oil has increased in popularity due to reputed health benefits, ranging from supporting weight loss to slowing down progression of dementia. Furthermore, it can be a tasty addition to a number of meals, but it should be used with care.
Fatty Acid Breakdown:
Omega-3: Omega-6 ratio = NA (virtually no omega-3)
For immense health benefits, please choose unrefined coconut oil. It is organic and retains most of the nutrients.
The health benefits of coconut oil (especially unrefined coconut oil) are:
- Rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs)
Most saturated fats in coconut oil are MCTs, which have different effects than most saturated fats which are known as long-chain triglycerides. MCTs can be easily absorbed and transported throughout the body. It can serve as an instant source of energy or can be converted into ketones to fuel the brain. Furthermore, MCTs also help increase HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood, which is associated with reduced risk of heart disease.
- Boost fat burning
A study showed that consuming 15-30g of MCTs daily increased calories burned over 24 hours by as much as 5%, totaling about 120 calories per day1. Another study showed that MCTs helped reduce total body fat, subcutaneous fat (jiggly fat under the skin) and visceral fat (also known as belly fat)2. Visceral fat, the deep abdominal fat that lodges in the abdominal cavity and around organs, is more of a health concern than subcutaneous fat. High accumulation of it is extremely harmful to health and is linked to chronic diseases.
- Reduce hunger
MCTs in coconut oil break down into ketones that can have an appetite reducing effect3. A study showed that men who consumed the most MCTs ate on average 256 fewer calories per day4. Another study showed those who ate the most MCTs during breakfast consumed fewer calories during lunch5.
- Support weight management
Since coconut oil boosts fat burning and reduces appetite, it should support weight loss in the long term. In fact, a study showed that MCTs promoted modest reductions in body weight, waist circumference and hip circumference2. In another study conducted on women with abdominal obesity, dietary supplementation with 30 ml (2 tablespoons) of coconut oil per day over a 12-week period led to a significant reduction in both BMI and waist circumference6. Yet another study on obese males also showed reduction in waist circumference after 4-week consumption of 30ml coconut oil daily7. However, do bear in mind that coconut oil is still high in calories and it is recommended to take in moderation.
- Improve blood lipid profile
A study showed that coconut oil reduced total and LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL (good), compared to soybean oil8. Another similar study also showed increased in HDL cholesterol9 level, this suggests that consumption of coconut oil helps improve metabolic health and lowers the risk of heart disease. Nonetheless, the effects of coconut oil on maintaining healthy cholesterol are still contradicting.
- Improve brain function of Alzheimer’s patients
Alzheimer’s patients appear to have reduced ability to use glucose for energy in certain parts of the brain. Scientists have hypothesised that ketones could provide an alternative energy source for these malfunctioning brain cells and reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease10. A study showed consumption of MCTs led to an improvement of brain function in patients with mild Alzheimer’s disease11. Nonetheless, this is a preliminary study and there is no evidence to suggest that coconut oil helps with Alzheimer’s disease.
- May reduce seizures
MCTs in coconut oil can increase the concentration of ketones in the blood, which could help reduce the rate of seizures in epileptic children12.
- Manage infection
Lauric acids make up about 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil, they can kill harmful pathogens, including bacteria, viruses and fungi13. Studies have shown that lauric acids managed to kill the harmful bacteria Staphylococcus aureus14 and yeast Candida albicans, which is a common source of yeast infections in human beings15.
- Lack of omega-3 fatty acids
Although coconut oil is high in MCTs, a healthy type of saturated fatty acid, it does not actually contain any omega-3s. According to a study16, most of the world’s population exhibits low blood levels of the omega-3s EPA and DHA. The modern diet consists of high amounts of omega-6, resulting in a very high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, which could promote the development of many diseases, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, inflammatory and autoimmune diseases. On the other hand, increased levels of omega-3s (i.e. a lower omega-6/omega-3 ratio) promote suppressive effects on inflammation.
To increase omega-3 intake, one of the easiest and effective ways is to use cooking oils that are high in omega-3s in daily cooking. If you always experience dry, rough, scaly skin or heightened feelings of anxiety, you may be lacking in omega-3s and supplementing with good cooking oils rich in omega-3s is highly recommended. Otherwise, you may complement coconut oil with omega-3-rich oil to optimise omega-6/omega-3 ratio.
- Contradictory health claims
There are many conflicting reports about whether coconut oil can lower total cholesterol and LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels. Some experts say that the fats in coconut oil are healthy and less likely to add to fat build-up in the body. Meanwhile, other experts suggest that coconut oil should be avoided due to its high levels of saturated fat, which has been demonised to increase cholesterol, especially LDL cholesterol. Since the research has not been definitive, it is good to stay updated on new findings on the effects of it on cholesterol level. This will help you to get a clearer picture of whether you should add coconut oil into your diet.
- Virgin coconut oil is not suitable for high-heat cooking
Virgin or unrefined coconut oil has a low smoke point (177°C), making it unsuitable for high temperature cooking, such as stir-frying and deep-frying. Meanwhile, refined coconut oil with a high smoke point of 232°C is suitable for all cooking methods, including deep-frying, roasting and grilling. Nevertheless, most of the beneficial MCTs in coconut oil are lost during the refining process, making it less nutritious than unrefined oil.
1.Eur J Clin Nutr.1996 Mar;50(3):152-8.
2. J Acad Nutr Diet.2015 Feb;115(2):249-63.
3. Obesity (Silver Spring).2018 Feb;26(2):269-273.
4. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord.1996 May;20(5):435-44.
5. Am J Clin Nutr.1998 Aug;68(2):226-34.
6. Lipids.2009 Jul;44(7):593-601.
7. ISRN Pharmacol. 2011; 2011: 949686.
8. Lipids.2009 Jul;44(7):593-601.
9. Nutr Hosp.2015 Nov 1;32(5):2144-52.
10. Ann N Y Acad Sci.2016 Mar;1367(1):12-20.
11. Neurobiol Aging.2004 Mar;25(3):311-4.
12. J Med Assoc Thai.2016 Feb;99(2):159-65.
13. Antimicrob Agents Chemother. 1972 Jul; 2(1): 23–28.
14. J Bacteriol.2000 May;182(9):2668-71.
15. J Med Food.2007 Jun;10(2):384-7.
16. Prog Lipid Res.2016 Jul;63:132-52.