coconut oil, medium chain triglyceriedes, MCT, Alzheimer's, lauric acid

Coconut Oil: Health Threat or Superfood?

Coconut Oil: Health Threat or Superfood?

© 2012 Dr. Dale Peterson &

In 1994 the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a consumer group focusing on food and nutrition, issued a statement that a large-size serving of popcorn at movie theaters contained as much saturated fat as six Big Macs. The executive director of the center stated, “Theater popcorn ought to be the Snow White of snack foods, but it’s been turned into Godzilla by being popped in highly saturated coconut oil.”

Many theater owners responded by offering alternatives such as air-popped popcorn, but soon switched back to coconut oil due to the demands of their patrons who preferred the flavor of the original. CSPI issued another salvo in 2009. Their senior nutritionist, Jayne Hurley, complained that Regal and AMC, the two largest theater chains, were popping corn in coconut oil, but she praised Cinemark for its use of canola oil.

CSPI and Jayne Hurley are prime examples that titles do not necessarily reflect wisdom and understanding. True science does not support the Center for Science’s position, and the nutritional facts are not consistent with Ms. Hurley’s opinion of the oils in question. CSPI can be excused for their misguided 1994 crusade, but they should have reviewed the evidence before repeating their blunder in 2009.

Early studies linking coconut oil to atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) were misleading. Researchers wanted to create atherosclerosis in laboratory animals so they could use them to study the effects of cholesterol-lowering drugs. They found that animals fed a diet rich in partially hydrogenated coconut oil rapidly developed atherosclerosis. This created the impression that coconut oil promotes plaque buildup in arteries.

Subsequent studies have found that virgin coconut oil affects cholesterol in a manner that is opposite that of hydrogenated oil. Rather that increasing cholesterol levels and accelerating the development of atherosclerosis, virgin coconut oil appears to lower total and LDL cholesterol levels while increasing the amount of protective HDL that is present. CSPI erred in attributing to virgin coconut oil the effects of coconut oil that had been chemically altered by hydrogenation, a chemical process that generates trans fats that promote plaque development.

Bruce Fife, N.D. of the Coconut Research Center is as enthusiastic in the promotion of coconut oil as CSPI is in their opposition to its use. He describes coconut oil as “the healthiest oil on earth” and considers it “the new health food of the 21st century.” He has written extensively about its use in preventing or reversing health challenges.

As is often the case with substances that are promoted as health foods, coconut oil has developed a cult following. I have seen claims that coconut oil promotes healthy skin and hair, relieves stress, maintains cholesterol levels, encourages weight loss, improves immunity, aids digestion, boosts metabolism, relieves kidney problems, prevents heart disease, reduces high blood pressure, controls diabetes, prevents HIV, lessens seizures, reduces the risk of cancer, cures autism, reverses Alzheimer’s disease, lessens dental problems, shrinks enlarged prostate glands, and increases bone strength. I have read that coconut oil has been used to treat abscesses, asthma, baldness, bronchitis, bruises, burns, colds, constipation, coughs, diarrhea, earache, fever, flu, gum disease, gonorrhea, irregular or painful menstruation, jaundice, kidney stones, lice, malnutrition, nausea, pancreatitis, rashes, scabies, scurvy, skin infections, sore throat, swelling, syphilis, toothache, tuberculosis, tumors, typhoid, ulcers, upset stomach, weakness, and wounds.

Taking the purported benefits of coconut oil at face value would lead one to believe that making coconut oil a significant part of one’s daily diet would insure a long and healthy life and that a physician would need nothing but coconut oil to treat injuries and illnesses. Unfortunately, the evidence supporting most of the claims is sketchy at best.

What then, can be said about the use of coconut oil? It is helpful to look at its composition to determine what effects can be expected. The constituents of coconut oil that are believed to convey its primary health benefits are fatty acids and antioxidants.

The most abundant fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid. The body uses lauric acid to produce monolaurin, which has antiviral, antifungal, and antibacterial properties. Other fatty acids with documented antimicrobial effects including capric acid and caprylic acid are also present. This explains why coconut oil has been reported to prevent or treat many infections including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The amount used has been in the range of three tablespoons daily. Coconut oil may be most effective in fighting infections that occur in the digestive tract. It is reported to effectively kill h Pylori, which is associated with peptic ulcers. It fights the growth of yeast and improves the balance of organisms in the intestines. It has even been helpful in clearing infections of giardia lamblia, a parasite that can cause profuse and persistent diarrhea.

In addition to the saturated fatty acids that provide antimicrobial effects, coconut oil contains gallic acid, a substance with antioxidant properties. Gallic acid, like ascorbic acid (vitamin C) can neutralize free radicals and thus decrease damage to LDL cholesterol, DNA, and cell membranes.

I frequently see coconut oil promoted for weight loss. Studies have shown that consuming medium chain (MCFA) oils like coconut oil result in greater weight loss than long chain (LCFA) oils like olive oil when part of a low calorie diet and exercise regimen. Supplementation of 2 to 4 tablespoons of MCFA daily has resulted in a greater reduction in waist size than in subjects consuming LCFA. I have not found evidence that simply replacing LCFA oils with coconut oil in a typical diet will result in measurable weight loss.

Coconut oil is reported to have anti-inflammatory effects, but it does not contain the essential fatty acids that are needed for the manufacturing of anti-inflammatory compounds in the body. It should not be considered a substitute for fish oil or other sources of omega-3 fatty acids.

The topical benefits of coconut oil are well-documented. It has a long history of use as a hair conditioner. Massaging the scalp and hair with coconut oil can control dandruff and aid in the regrowth and repair of damaged hair.

It is useful for improving skin tone and moisture. Its antimicrobial action makes it useful in the treatment of burns and wounds. It has been used to improve chronic skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

Coconut oil may be of benefit in neurological conditions such as seizure disorders, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and autism. The theory is that in these conditions the brain is unable to burn glucose for energy as it should. It is hoped that by increasing the availability of fats, called ketones, the brain will once again be able to produce energy effectively.

Since most fats are converted to ketones only when carbohydrates are unavailable, it was originally believed that the diet would need to consist of 90 % fat to generate the ketones required to have an impact. It is now known that medium chain triglycerides, such as those found in coconut oil, are converted to ketones by the liver without regard to blood sugar levels or the amount of carbohydrates in the diet.

I have received several questions regarding the use of coconut oil as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Most have been generated by an Internet video reporting that Steve Newport, a middle-aged man with Alzheimer’s disease, improved dramatically after his wife, a physician, began including coconut oil in his daily regimen.

Steve Newport did improve significantly when ketone levels in his body were raised and he has remained relatively stable for two years. His regimen has consisted of much more than coconut oil, however. Steve eats a whole food diet, free of processed foods. He takes 3 tablespoons of a 50/50 mixture of coconut oil and medium chain triglyceride oil three times daily. (The blend will soon be available as Fuel for Thought; the website is He also takes a teaspoon of cod liver oil and two teaspoons of fish oil daily. His supplements include B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin D3, niacinamide, turmeric, magnesium, acetyl L-carnitine, coenzyme Q10, D-ribose, phosphatidyl serine, chromium, zinc, and L-lysine. He is also taking two Alzheimer’s drugs, Exelon and Namenda.

It is important to recognize that coconut oil is not the complete answer to Alzheimer’s or similar diseases. It must also be noted that the amount of coconut oil consumed when it is being used to treat a disease is far greater than one would normally obtain from diet alone.

Individuals without serious health challenges can benefit by replacing vegetable oils with coconut oil. One of the advantages of using coconut oil when cooking, especially when frying foods, is that it remains stable at high temperatures. Commonly used oils such as corn oil, olive oil, and other vegetable oils tend to oxidize high temperatures. Olive oil is beneficial, but it is best served at room temperature as when used in salad dressings.

Coconut oil is certainly not the nutritional villain it has been portrayed to be. If coconut oil is used to replace partially hydrogenated fats in the diet, plaque buildup in arteries should be lessened. It is likely that the digestive tract will be healthier due to the oil’s effects on disease-causing yeasts, bacteria, and parasites. It is doubtful however, that normal use will result in weight loss or be the fountain of youth suggested by some of its proponents.

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