Dr. Andy Oakes-Lottridge / April 3, 2012
One of the many wonders of my job are the things my patients teach me. This week it was coconut oil. A patient, or actually his son Dan, was showing me his coconut oil that he has started giving to his father. While Dan was giving it to his father to help with his dementia, coconut oil has also been touted for the treatment of obesity, heart disease, high cholesterol, diabetes, fatigue, intestinal disorders, thyroid conditions, and even low energy. Modern snake oil or the real deal?
Naturally skeptical, I had to admit that I didn’t really know a great deal about coconut oil. What I did know was that coconut oil is known for being high in saturated fats. That means that it isn’t likely to be good for cholesterol, and thus not good for heart disease….or so I thought. It turns out the truth, like life, is somewhat murky.
Yes, coconut oil is higher in saturated fats than corn, olive, or soybean oils. It’s even higher in saturated fats than lard or butter. Now for some surprises; the evidence of association between coconut oil and vascular disease is mixed. There is some data suggesting that higher amounts of coconut oil can increase cholesterol; not only the bad low-density lipoproteins (LDL), but also the good high-density lipoproteins (HDL).
One report indicated no association between coconut oil and increased heart attacks. Another showed that high a
mounts of coconut oil can indeed raise cholesterol levels, but no more than using lots of butter. Still other studies tell us that coconut oil may increase the good HDL but not the bad LDL.
For weight loss, the jury on coconut oil is also still out. One very preliminary clinical trial seemed to indicate that when compared to soy oil, coconut oil reduced the waist line in men. However it did not do the same in women and even in men it did not cause any reduction in weight. Come on guys, we all know how to subtly suck in that gut, so I think we can safely say there just isn’t any evidence to suggest coconut oil will help with weight loss.
Here’s a surprise I found in my reading. A topical spray containing coconut oil, among other things, seems to be effective in treating head lice. This was comparable to sprays containing more conventional chemical agents such as those in prescription medications. Go figure.
As for safety issues, there don’t seem to be any. Allergic reactions to coconut oil tend to be fairly uncommon, especially when compared to common food items like wheat, milk, soy, or peanuts. The only issue tends to be intestinal upset and diarrhea, which would likely occur with increased intake of any fatty substance.
As for dementia? Sorry, no data out there that the coconut oil Dan is giving his father will make a difference. In relation to heart disease, the evidence is too slim to recommend taking extra oil of any kind. However, you might want to consider using coconut oil in place of another type of oil if you like the flavor. For now, continue to limit the use of oils and fats of any kind, at least until we know more.