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With its reputation as a quick energy fix and weight loss aid, coconut oil seems to do it all.

But are these healing properties real, or is dietary coconut oil simply an overvalued — and potentially — unhealthful fad?

What Is True for All Oils Is True for Coconut Oil…

In evaluating coconut oil, I’d like to once again underline that all oils have important drawbacks from which coconut oil is not exempt.

For starters, it is essential to stress that whether we are talking about vegetable, olive or coconut oil–oils are NOT whole foods.

The healthiest diet will always be one that is based on plant-based whole foods.

However, oils are not whole foods but extracted fat concentrates.

When you extract oil from its whole food source, you remove the fiber, vitamins, and minerals of the food itself – bringing the nutrient density of the food to near zero. Equally, a concentrated nutrient is processed differently by the body compared to nutrients packaged naturally in fiber-filled fruits and vegetables.

In the end, it is much better for you to eat the actual olives (versus the olive oil) or the coconut meat (versus the coconut oil).

Furthermore, oils negatively affect the energy density of our meals.

Drizzling oil-based dressings over whole fruits, vegetables, legumes and grains quickly shifts the energy density and composition of the meal towards a higher fat profile, making it nearly impossible to attain the recommended macronutrient balance (80% carbohydrates, 8-12% protein, 7-10% fat) most plant-based physicians recommend.

Because of this, adding oils is much more likely to lead to weight gain than weight loss.

Very specifically, concentrated oils also affect the protein percentage of your diet. Because oils contain around 9 calories per gram (compared to protein’s 4 calories per gram), adding oil increases calories without increasing ingredients (or nutrients) and dilutes protein as a percentage of caloric intake.

The Truth About Coconut Oil and Weight Loss

Let’s now examine the argument that ‘coconut oil helps you lose weight’.

Many athletes (among others) like to include coconut oil in their diets because they believe that the oil’s MCTs (medium chain triglycerides) content is not only a good source of energy but it helps keep the pounds off.

MCTs are a partially man-made fat, considered a direct source of energy because they require less processing in the body to become bioavailable. For this reason, MCTs are used to treat some food absorption disorders in patients who cannot tolerate fats including liver disease, celiac disease and aiding recovery from gastrectomy.

Some research demonstrates that MCTs can have an effect on weight loss, but only in people who substitute it for other fats like animal-derived fats or omega-6-rich vegetable oils–NOT for people who are following a naturally low-fat whole food plant-based diet.

In other words, when MCTs replace other types of fat, your caloric intake remains the same.  But when you already avoid animal-derived fats and vegetable oils in your diet, any addition of oil will increase your caloric intake, and the effect from MCTs will actually be negative.

To be more specific, consuming two tablespoons of MCTs will add 230 calories to your diet and may help you burn off an extra 30-60 calories a day.  If you take into consideration that MCTs may decrease your caloric consumption by an extra 40 calories, you are left with an average 70-100 calories ‘loss’ for every 230 calories ‘gain’.

Not a very effective weight loss plan.

Now you understand why those who are already following a plant-based diet should never consider adding coconut oil to their diets hoping they will lose weight. The reverse will likely occur given the naturally low-energy density of a typical whole food plant-based diet.

Coconut Oil—No Better Than Lard?

In the 1980s, the American Heart Association (AHA) noted the high levels of saturated fat in coconut oil as being overall destructive to heart health, specifically promoting heart disease. The AHA continues to advise the reduction of all saturated fats, including coconut oil, to less than 5-6% of dietary calories.

The truth is that about 50% of the saturated fat in coconut oil is MCTs. The remaining consists of LCTs (long chain triglycerides), known to increase cardiovascular disease risk.

Though some cold-pressed ‘virgin’ coconut oils may have a higher percentage of MCTs, which would mean that you would eat slightly less LCTs – you still cannot escape the fact that coconut oil is laden with saturated fat. The same saturated fat that raises our cholesterol, clogs our arteries, and contributes to our heart attacks.

To counter these negative conclusions about coconut oil, many point to the fact that in places like the Philippines, where large quantities of coconut products are consumed, there are still low rates of heart disease. It must be stressed that the low heart disease rate can most probably be attributed to their overall diet, which is high in rice and vegetables and low in meats and processed foods.

Food is a package deal. You cannot say something is ‘good for you’ because perhaps an element of it is healthful (or less harmful)–you need to treat each food as a whole.

Despite its MCT content, coconut oil is oil. And it is extremely high in saturated fats.

What About Coconut Oil and Cholesterol?

Speaking of your heart, what effect does coconut oil have on your cholesterol levels?

Studies show that coconut oil actually does increase LDL (bad) cholesterol. However, since coconut oil also seems to increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels, researchers argue there is a ‘neutral’ effect.

This is illogical though because, while LDL cholesterol is well-known to increase the risk of heart disease, there is absolutely no certainty that HDL actually lowers the risk. In fact, drugs that raise HDL have been unable to prevent heart attacks.

And What About Alzheimer’s?

Despite a lot of fanfare about how coconut oil is an effective treatment for Alzheimer’s,
this too has yet to be shown to be the case.

A recent review on Alzheimer’s disease and coconut oil states that “the use of coconut oil to treat or prevent [Alzheimer’s Disease] is not supported by any peer-reviewed large cohort clinical data; any positive findings are based on small clinical trials and on anecdotal evidence.”

The single randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial published to date used a proprietary blend of MCTs and LCTs (not coconut oil), and significant clinical improvement was only seen among patients who did not present a genetic mutation that increases their risk of developing Alzheimer’s. But even within this group, once patients were randomized, the effect seemed to disappear.

At the end of the day, the adoption of a dietary lifestyle that helps you substantially decrease your cholesterol levels and lose weight, thus reducing your risk to developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease is more important in the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease than the addition of a wonder oil with no scientific evidence to its effectiveness.

So forget the oil and simply follow a whole food plant-based regime.

But if you really want coconut in your diet, consider eating whole coconut rather than coconut oil. And do so in moderation. One ounce of coconut meat contains 100 calories with 72 of those coming from saturated fat, so a little goes a long way.

And know that by following a low-fat whole food, plant-based diet, you are already doing the best thing you can possibly do for your health.

Rosane Oliveira, DVM, PhD

President & CEO, Plant-Based Life Foundation | Dr. Rosane Oliveira combines a lifelong passion for nutrition with 25 years of genetics research to create programs that help people develop healthy habits on their journey towards a more plant-based lifestyle. She is a Visiting Clinical Professor in Public Health Sciences and was the founding director of the first Integrative Medicine program at the UC Davis School of Medicine. She completed her postgraduate studies in Brazil and did her postdoctoral training in immunogenetics and functional genomics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.