Coconut oil: Does the popular oil really have health benefits and should we eat it?

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Coconut oil is an edible oil found in coconuts. It has become extremely popular in the last few years, not just as an ingredient in cooking, but also as a cosmetic product for the hair and skin. It has been claimed by some that eating coconut oil can increase the chance for people to lose weight, but others dismiss this as a myth. So how healthy is coconut oil really and should we be including it in our diets? Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, which is the same fat you find in dairy products and meat.

Saturated fat is generally regarded as ‘bad’ fat, as opposed to unsaturated fat which is regarded as ‘good’ fat.

But despite this, some people claim eating the edible oil can still help you to lose weight. How does this make sense?

According to Kajsa Ernestam, dietitian at Lifesum, this claim has been made because the saturated fat found in coconut oil is different to the saturated fat found in dairy products and meat.

“Coconut oil contains a high percentage of saturated fats, more than you can find in butter,” said Ernestam.

“However, it is said the saturated fat in coconut oil doesn’t react in the same way as fat in butter and meat in the body.”

This is because coconut oil contains a form of fat molecule called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which have shorter chains of fatty acid than ‘normal’ saturated fat.

One study by the Cornell University Medical School, according to Ernestam, found a diet rich in MCTs increased the chance to lose weight, compared to a diet high in long-chain triglycerides (LCTs).

Further studies also showed a similar result, in that a diet containing MCT oil increased weight loss compared to a diet containing olive oil.

Despite this, Ernestam notes the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has not yet managed to find enough strong evidence that the medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut oil can actually reduce body weight.

Saturated fat is generally regarded as ‘bad’ fat as it has been linked to raised levels of cholesterol in the body, which can lead to heart disease.

The British Heart Foundation advises that we limit the amount of saturated fat in our diets to 20g per day for women and 30g per day for men.

Two tablespoons of coconut oil contain around 19g of saturated fat, so it doesn’t take much to reach the recommended daily allowance.

So with mixed evidence on the pros and cons of saturated fat, should we include some in our diets or avoid it entirely?

Based on the studies available, Ernestam recommends eating coconut oil in moderation, if you enjoy the flavour of it.

“But individuals should preferably choose vegetable oils such as rapeseed or olive oil in everyday life, since olive and rapeseed oil are good sources of unsaturated fat which

is better for the body and health.

“When eating coconut oil, opt for virgin coconut oil instead of refined as it is said to be richer in antioxidant polyphenols.

“Coconut oil doesn’t have the same level of scientific evidence to back up the health claims, as for example olive oil has, as olive oil has been approved by EFSA.”

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