Coconut oil is the fat of the moment, supposedly associated with several health benefits and weight management advantages.
Coconut oil has been touted as a superfood all over the world. However, this was largely due to a study that suggested coconut oil supplementation could help with weight loss. However, there was a lack of proper framing of the characteristics of the coconut oil studied in comparison to what is sold.
Used for centuries in several tropical and subtropical regions, the hysteria associated with coconut oil can be traced back to a single study from 2003.
In it, researchers suggest that supplementing the daily diet with this oil helped with weight loss. It’s no surprise that the general population stopped reading right then and there.
However, the idea is not that linear, as explained by one of the authors, since the role in weight was due not to coconut oil, but to its medium-chain fatty acid (MCT) content.
What remains to be reiterated is that the study was carried out with a “designer” coconut oil, in which the medium-chain fatty acid content was 100%, in contrast to the 13 – 15% present in commercial formulations. Although the author mentioned that the results could never be transposed to products on the market, the damage was already done and the coconut oil fever was already widespread.
COCONUT OIL: PROPERTIES
This type of oil has been associated with several benefits that include promoting weight loss, cardiovascular health, increased immunity, healing and oral hygiene, among others.
In fact, every 100 g of coconut oil contains 82.4 g of saturated fatty acids, that is, more than 80% saturated fat, more than butter and lard.
Since medium-chain fatty acids have several health benefits, mainly due to the fact that they do not require the action of pancreatic lipase to be digested, researchers often describe coconut oil as an excellent source of this type of fat.
In fact, this oil is composed of the following medium-chain fatty acids: lauric acid (≈ 51%), caprylic acid (≈ 8%) and caprice acid (≈ 6%).
However, lauric acid behaves more like a long-chain triglyceride in terms of solubility and low intestinal absorption. In other words, coconut oil cannot be considered a compound rich in medium-chain fatty acids as it is generally referred to.
Furthermore, and being extremely rich in saturated fat as mentioned above, several health entities have a skeptical position regarding its use and health benefits.
Since it has been described that the consumption of saturated fat can have an impact on cardiovascular risk factors, namely the increase in serum LDL cholesterol values, the American Heart Association (AHA) discourages the use of coconut oil beyond the daily recommended intake. Consumption of saturated fats, that is, less than 10% of total daily calories.
The body of studies used to establish the benefits of coconut oil is mostly based on observational studies with dubious methodology and, although its role in cardiovascular health is intriguing, it has yet to be well defined.
COCONUT OIL: EFFECT ON CHOLESTEROL METABOLISM AND CARDIOVASCULAR DISEASE
The effect of macronutrients on blood levels of bad cholesterol is already recognized, being an important component in the pathogenesis of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis. However, different fatty acids have different effects on cholesterol levels.
When compared to carbohydrate mixtures, lauric, myristic and palmitic acids increase total, good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and reduce triglyceride levels. Since dietary fats consist of a mixture of several fatty acids, the effect on blood fats is not that linear.
The truth is that, although often cited as a way to improve HDL cholesterol levels due to its supposed richness in medium-chain fatty acids, the results of studies are not enough to point out specific recommendations for coconut oil intake when compared to other fats. Vegetables like olive oil.
Furthermore, indiscriminate consumption of coconut oil can raise LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels in a similar way to foods rich in short-chain fatty acids.
COCONUT OIL: EFFECT ON WEIGHT LOSS
Commercial medium-chain fatty acids have been identified as weight loss enhancers since, unlike long-chain fatty acids, their hepatic absorption is direct, contributing to a much less marked postprandial lipemia, which results in less deposition of fat in reserves. Furthermore, the rapid metabolism and consequent ketosis can result in early satiety.
Regardless of the proposed theories, the exact mechanism is yet to be defined, with there being studies that associate coconut oil with weight loss and others that do not, requiring short and long-term interventions to define the impact of this product on body composition.
EFFECT ON ORAL HEALTH
Oil pulling is an oral detoxification technique that consists of using 10 to 15 mL of vegetable oil for 10 minutes, a practice that appears to have an effect on preventing cavities, gingivitis and plaque formation.
Although the effectiveness of this practice is yet to be defined, it is believed that the bicarbonate in saliva reacts with the fatty acids in coconut oil, enhancing its antibacterial effect, in addition to the viscosity preventing the adhesion of bacteria and the antioxidants increasing the processes of detoxification. In fact, studies show that the effectiveness of oil pulling is similar to using chlorhexidine.
However, due to the risk of aspiration of oil into the upper respiratory tree, the practice is advised against by the American Dental Association.
EFFECTS ON SKIN DISEASES
Topical application of virgin coconut oil can have several benefits such as repairing the skin barrier, antibacterial action, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and healing effects. In atopic dermatitis, the application of this product resulted in a reduction in the severity of the disease and in colonization by Staphylococcus aureus.
IS COCONUT OIL HEALTHIER? NO
Seeing coconut oil as a functional food is extremely exaggerated and associated with marketing techniques. The benefits of commercial formulations are extrapolated from studies with medium-chain fatty acids, in a classic process of hasty generalization.
In fact, according to studies, the impact of consuming coconut oil on increasing LDL cholesterol levels is similar to that of other saturated fats, reducing its effect on cardiovascular health.
As for the effect on weight, and regardless of the buzz in the media, consuming coconut oil is not considered a viable strategy for increasing satiety or increasing energy expenditure at rest.