Paging Dr. Frischer - Coconut Oil

Once a nutritional public enemy, coconut oil has risen to the ranks of a major health fad. Why has this happened? How can an oil high in saturated fats become a nutrition darling? Is coconut oil actually good for us?

The benefits of coconut oil seem to be touted everywhere. Dr. Oz believes that coconut oil has “superpowers” with near miraculous qualities. On the web are numerous claims that it is heart-healthy; leads to the loss of excess body fat; helps to dissolve kidney stones; enhances immunity; helps to resist viruses, bacteria, yeast, fungi, and candida; boosts thyroid function, improves blood sugar control; increases energy and endurance; improves digestion and vitamin absorption; lowers cholesterol; is anti-aging; helps with Alzheimer’s dementia; is good for skin and hair; and is safe without side effects.

In the 1980’s, low-fat diets were big. In particular, this meant restricting saturated fats like coconut oil and palm oil. Since that time, the focus has shifted to limiting carbohydrates and trans fats, and less on saturated fats. Where does coconut oil fit in?

Coconut oil differs from other oils in several ways. 92% of its fat is saturated, making coconut oil far more saturated than most other oils and fats. Olive and soybean oil are about 15% saturated, beef about 50%, and butter has about 63% saturated fat. The closest competition to coconut oil is palm kernel oil, which has 82% saturated fat. It is, in fact, all those saturated bonds that make coconut oil solid at room temperature, and keeps it from going rancid for a long time. That makes it great to use in candy, chocolate, yogurt, movie theater popcorn, and other coatings that don’t melt until they hit the warmth of the mouth. Vegans find it great to use as a butter substitute.

Coconut oil is also unusual because it contains a high percentage of medium-chain triglycerides. Many other oils consist entirely of long-chain triglycerides. Soybean oil, for example, is 100% long chain. Why is this relevant? Our bodies metabolize medium chains differently than long chains. Medium chains go from the intestines to the liver, where they are burned off as fuel, and possibly raise the metabolic rate. This makes them less available to be circulated throughout the body and deposited in fat tissues.

Coconut oil contains lauric acid. Lauric acid does raise both HDL and LDL (the good and bad cholesterols), but claims also include that it may offer a number of health benefits, including antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral properties, acne benefits, and weight loss properties (due to speeding up the metabolism). More research is definitely needed to back these up.

Coconut water, the liquid inside of the coconut, is also growing in popularity. As a long distance runner, I often see it promoted as a natural sports drink, containing electrolytes. In emergencies, coconut water has reportedly been used when medical saline was unavailable. Evidently, during World War II, coconut water was used as an intravenous rehydration fluid for British and Japanese patients. This technique also may have been used since then for short-term emergency situations when nothing else was available.

Coconut oil, with its saturated fats, is not as bad as it was considered in the 1980’s. However, it is clear that polyunsaturated oils lower LDL cholesterol while coconut oil raises it, making it difficult to recommend that it replace olive, canola, or other liquid oils. As for the rest of the intriguing and tempting claims, stay tuned for more solid scientific evidence. If you enjoy it, by all means include it as part of a reasonable and balanced diet. 

Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.