The Skinny on Coconut

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Picture of coconut oilA little coconut won’t hurt, but don’t be fooled by recent diet fads that tout coconut, coconut oil, or coconut water as the secret ingredient for weight loss, sports recovery, and health. Unlike most nuts that contain heart-healthy fats, the main fat in coconut is saturated fat. Granted, the main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which is a “medium-chain triglyceride” or MCT. Unlike the longer saturated fats in dairy products and meat, MCTs are shorter, more quickly absorbed, and likely to be burned for energy, rather than stored as fat. Numerous studies show that MCTs increase metabolism, aid in weight loss, and lower body fat. That’s the argument to justify drinking coconut-laden smoothies with 93% fat calories.
Like the old adage says, “If it sounds to good to be true, it probably is.” There are few studies on coconut and weight loss, mostly ones using purified MCTs, which are useful mainly for hospitalized patients requiring tube feedings. There are only a handful of studies, most on animals, showing any weight loss potential for coconut. In short, if people lose weight with coconut, it’s probably because they cut calories, not because they sprinkled coconut on their hamburger.
OK, so coconut isn’t the Promised Land for weight loss, but is it good for your health? The proponents of coconut say we’ve been duped into thinking that the saturated fats in tropical oils are bad for us, pointing out that we’ve “…drastically reduced saturated fats…[which]has not solved the nation’s health problems.” They say lauric acid in coconut oil lowers, not raises, heart-disease risk, as proven by the low rates of heart disease in coconut-eating cultures such as India. First, saturated fats, along with trans fats, are major contributors to heart disease, it’s just that few people follow the dietary advice to cut back. Second, while cultures where people eat coconut-rich diets sometimes do have a lower incidence of disease, there is no proof it is because of coconut. It could be that these people are at low risk because they are lean, physically active, and eat traditional diets rich in fruits, vegetables, and other real foods. In contrast, adding coconut oil to the fat- and sugar-laden American diet is like pouring kerosine on a blazing fire of obesity.
The evidence linking coconut oil to heart disease is contradictory, but points sharply in the direction of caution. Some studies show lauric acid might improve the ratio of bad cholesterol (LDL) to good cholesterol (HDL), thus lowering heart-disease risk. Even then, coconut oil is no where near as beneficial as switching from butter to olive oil. Keep in mind that coconut oil also contains myristic acid, a fat that dramatically raises blood cholesterol levels. Decades of studies show that tropical oils, including coconut oil, actually raise, not lower, heart disease risk, which is why they were removed from processed foods in the first place. And, if you think coconut water is a great sports recovery drink, think again. Studies show it’s no better for replacing electrolytes or fluids than commercial sports drinks. A glass of water and a banana or a bowl of watermelon also can do the trick.
Don’t get me wrong. Coconut has redeeming qualities. Virgin coconut oil has some vitamin E and phytochemicals called polyphenols. If you use coconut milk, grab the “light” version, which has 70% less fat and 65% fewer calories. Then use it sparingly.
Perez-Idarrage A, Aragon-Vargas L: Postexercise rehydration: Potassium-rich drinks versus water and a sports drink. Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism 2014;May 9: 1-8.
Maric T, Woodside B, Luheshi G: The effects of dietary saturated fat on basal hypothalamic neuroinflammation in rats. Brain Behavior and Immunity 2014;36:35-45.
Ippagunta S, Angius Z, Sanda M, et al: Dietary CLA-induced lipolysis is delayed in soy oil-fed mice compared to coconut oil-fed mice. Lipids 2013;48:1145-1155.

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