Faith has been put into coconut products that we don’t know a lot about. Some people may have ditched things we know are good for us. Remember, no single food or nutrient will ever be our saviour.

If media reports and blogs are anything to go by, it seems many people disguise their opinion on coconut as knowledge. I’m going to tackle coconut oil and debunk some myths linking it to curing health problems including obesity, diabetes, skin abnormalities, dementia… the list goes on.

Understanding the basics

Coconut oil is 92 per cent saturated fat
Considerable debate surrounds the harmful – or benign – effects of saturated fat on heart health. Its evil tag has faded, but it’s not totally gone and I doubt it ever will. Our focus should be on including in our diet more unsaturated fats that we know are healthy like olive oil, fatty fish and nuts.

The excitement over coconut oil partially stems from the hype over medium chain fatty acids. These acids are saturated fats, however they behave differently to other saturated fats and are believed have a benign or even beneficial effect on our health.

Coconut oil is similar but unlike MCTs
Medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs, are made up of medium chain fatty acids. MCTs are manufactured and not created by nature. Coconut oil, on the other hand, consists mostly of natural lauric acid, a ‘classified’ medium chain fat, that is low or absent from artificial MCT products. The two are not the same. MCTs are liquid at room temperature and coconut oil is solid.

Lauric acid behaves differently to other medium chain fatty acids
Medium chain fatty acids range in length from 8 to 12 carbon molecules – this is where the debate begins. Although lauric acid, a 12 carbon fat, may be classified as a medium chain fatty acid, it actually behaves more like a longer chain fat once inside the body.

Therefore, the research on MCTs can’t be passed onto coconut oil
Most of the research on MCTs has looked at the 8 to 10 carbon fatty acids, not lauric acid, so it’s unwise to spread the knowledge. Plus, coconut oil includes saturated fatty acids of longer length and some of these are thought to be harmful.

So what about our health?

The fats in coconut oil do affect our cholesterol levels
Coconut oil consists mainly of lauric acid (47 per cent), myristic acid (16.5 per cent) and palmitic acid (7.5 per cent). Myrisitic and palmitic are long chain fatty acids and have consistently been shown to increase our cholesterol levels. There is overwhelming evidence that suggests replacing these with unsaturated fats, like olive oil, results in more favourable lipid profiles. It seems lauric acid does not have such a potent effect on increasing cholesterol levels as the previous two fatty acids and may in fact increase the healthful HDL cholesterol proportionately more than total cholesterol, however this doesn’t rule out any possible harm.

Coconut oil is unlikely to help shed weight
There is some scant evidence that coconut oil, or MCTs, can help us drop kgs. But a closer look at studies suggests this doesn’t account for the diet as a whole and, as we should all know by now, it’s what you eat from day to day that makes the difference.

Coconut oil is not a nutritional panacea
There is no evidence to suggest coconut oil is a cure for everything wrong with our health. That’s not to say that it won’t help, but I am yet to find any solid evidence convincing me it should be used over other fats I know are healthy.

What about when eaten in the context of a diet?

Traditional diets don’t include coconut oil
A lot of debate on the goodness of coconut oil stems from the belief that traditional diets of healthy people – free from high rates of chronic disease – included high amounts of coconut products. However, these diets, seen in places including the Pacific, are actually high in coconut flesh and squeezed coconut cream – not oil. These populations have also traditionally eaten fish and vegetables. Coconut oil is a relatively new commodity among Western countries.

The combination of coconut oil and the Western diet may be disastrous
Traditional diets don’t tend to include processed and packaged food high in salt, sugar and fat, whereas the Western diet is defined by these. It’s probable that eating sensible amounts coconut oil while making healthy food choices will have no harmful effect. However if we continue our disastrous dietary habits, adding heaped scoops of coconut oil is essentially playing with fire.

5 tips to take away

• Like butter, coconut oil can be used in sensible amounts, just don’t over do it.
• It is expensive, so your money may be better spent on stocking up on fruit, vegetables, meat, fish and nuts.
• Foods high in monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, and omega-3 fats, like salmon, should be picked over coconut oil.
• The quantity of calories matters. Adding coconut oil to your food without substituting it for something else may promote weight gain.
• It’s your total diet that decides your health, not a single food or product.

This information was presented to Dave Shaw by Dr Laurence Eyres who has conducted an independent review of the published evidence on coconut and health for the NZ Heart Foundation.

Dave is holding nutrition clinics as part of MajorFit Ltd at Next Generation Health Club in Parnell. Book an appointment here. Contact him via Facebook here.