Over and over my patients ask me about the health benefits of coconut oil. I’ve got to tell you, it’s like asking me the health benefits of smoking ten packs a day of Camels, I can’t think of any.
When you leave bacon grease out after using it, it congeals into a greasy, flecked whitish-yellow muck that is solid at seventy degrees. This means it’s a saturated fat. Here’s the thing, coconut oil is actually worse for you than bacon grease (and no, bacon grease isn’t good for you).
There are a lot of different ways to think about the various fats, but one of the most useful is the difference between saturated and unsaturated fats. Most saturated fat is solid at room temperature and most unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature. Now all fats are to some small degree a mix of both types of fat, but usually a given fat is the dominant one in a certain food. You can tell how much of a fat is saturated by whether it is solid at room temperature.
Now one of the selling points that people have been told is that coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which the people selling coconut oil claim are really good for you. The problem is that studies on those medium chain triglycerides have been done and they have zero beneficial effects unless you have a specific medical problem. For example, if you can’t absorb enough calories from your food, then they can help you through an absorption crisis because they absorb more easily which helps you gain weight. Most likely, this is not your particular problem, though.
We have actually checked to see if people lose weight when they replace their saturated fats with MCTs; the answer is no. Does it improve any of the main diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease? No, in fact it usually makes them worse. It raises cholesterol dramatically as well as insulin levels and it also raises triglycerides.
Now there’s really no doubt that wherever it comes from, saturated fat is bad for you. And coconut oil, including its MCTs, has more saturated fat than bacon grease.
A quick review would tell you that the countries with the lowest saturated fat intakes have the lowest rates of diabetes and heart disease and those with the highest intake have the most. There are equations you can run that will predict with good accuracy how much your cholesterol will go up if you eat a lot of saturated fat, as long as you know where you started. Most saturated fat comes from animal foods like meat and dairy, but some comes from plants, like palm oil and coconut oil.
The oil derived from palm fruit and coconuts is solid at room temperature, so you can be sure the vast majority of it is saturated fat. Now MCTs are really short molecules and they don’t turn solid until the temperature is below freezing. So most of coconut oil is not made of MCTs, they typically make up only about 10% of coconut oil. Several studies have looked at whole coconut oil’s effect on cholesterol, but to make a long story short, it’s horrible for your cholesterol. It raises it exactly as much as we would expect using the equations that have been derived.
A study published by Dr. Katan from Holland in 1994 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that palm and coconut oils raised cholesterol the most of any fats, including butter, beef fat, chicken fat and lard. Compared to the average Dutch diet, which is probably a pretty fatty diet to start with, replacing the dietary fat with coconut oil yielded 34% and 37% increases in total cholesterol and LDL or bad cholesterol, respectively.
Another study published by Dr. McGandy in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1966 showed that of the oils, coconut raised cholesterol the most in people on either low or high sugar diets, even when compared to olive oil or safflower oil (neither of which I recommend either). Cholesterol in the coconut oil group averaged 250 mg/dL, with olive oil averaging 203 and safflower oil 168. All of those are too high, but coconut oil is definitely the worst.
In addition, recent studies have linked the genetic changes related to diabetes in the pancreas to exposure to saturated fat that is chemically identical to one of the main saturated fats that is found in coconut oil.
So first and foremost, unless you have a specific, rare disease that a doctor is treating with MCTs, they are just another saturated fat. If your doctor wants you to get MCTs, that is what you should take, just MCTs, not the coconut oil, which is made of 90% other bad stuff that makes you fat and sick. Having diabetes and high blood cholesterol is horrible for you, and since coconut oil is one of the worst fats for raising cholesterol, it should be avoided.