The Truth Behind Coconut Oil

I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts on coconut oil for a while now. It seems to have taken off as a new “surprise! It’s good for you!” food, but some of the claims tied to it seem pretty unreal… I needed to know more! So here’s what I have found out in the last little while about decoding coconut oil: good, bad, or ugly?

Friday I went to see Kelly at a health center. Kelly is the nutritionist saw as far back as 2004 (!!) and continue to think is fab! I always enjoy my appointments because Kelly keeps me accountable and focused, answers all my questions, and is totally clear on what should / should not be going on in my diet.

The first time I went to see her, I had thought I was doing OK in the diet arena, though I still wanted to lose weight and was hoping for some tips. The part of me that wants boundaries was stoked that she gave them to me. Things like: “that “lower-fat” muffin you have after the gym everyday? It’s gotta go. Let’s find you a better carb + protein snack.” She taught me about what sorts of proportions of fat to carbs / starch to protein to aim for in my meals, and generally got me on the road to understanding how to eat well.

I had a lot to learn, overall. Classic example: I was a bit of a dietic catastrophe in the 90s. I would never eat what I now know to be the healthy fats. I used to say “I can live without fat in my savoury foods, so I’ll cut corners and save there, and then spend calories on desserts.” Obviously, I was not exactly a beacon of health. 🙂

I went to my appointment with five questions, which means multiple topics and therefore multiple posts. Coconut oil is just first up…

You might remember this pic from my oatmeal cookies post on I’ve been adrift in confusion about what to do about coconut oil.

I think it was 2 months ago now (but I’m away from my back issues and can’t look it up), Oxygen magazine’s columnist Tosca Reno wrote about how she had introduced coconut oil to her diet (a spoon before lunch and dinner, if I’m remembering correctly), and reported that she had noticeably reduced in belly fat. Wow!

Reference to the benefits of coconut oil had also appeared in Clean Eating magazine (Nov-Dec 2009), a member of the Oxygen publishing family (Robert Kennedy as Chief Publishing Officer, anyway), which pointed to certain “claims” and “facts”. I was mostly interested in this one:

The “claim” was “coconut oil speeds up the metabolism and promotes weight loss.”

The “facts” cited a study done in Brazil at the Federal University of Alagoas, in which “20 women ingested 30ml of coconut oil daily as part of a 12-week diet and exercise regimen” and that they decreased in waist size and BMI, while their cholesterol improved.

In comparison, another group followed the same diet and exercise regimen, but had soybean oil instead of coconut, which showed them to lose weight but that their cholesterol levels worsened and they didn’t lose belly fat.

These findings are pretty amazing! But the skeptic and nerd in me doubted. So I went looking for this study that many, many, many, many online articles and blogs are citing—the same one cited in the Clean Eating mag—to see for myself.

On, only the abstract is available, which I read. And, yes! The study has some very interesting results! But… the thing is, that’s just one study. There are definitely limitations in what you can say *absolutely* after just one study… so I’m still wary of this explosion of interest about the effects of coconut oil that are making it sound like it’s a silver bullet… the science doesn’t seem to support that yet. There are just too many questions left unanswered. First, the 40 women in this study (and still *just* 40!) had waist sizes of 88cm (34.6 inches) and larger… no other data were available. Was there a maximum waist size for the sake of the study, or was anyone morbildy obese? Did they have any cholesterol issues to begin with? Did the researchers select their participants based on waist size, BMI, or cholesterol? The study also tested these 40 women while decreasing their caloric intake and increasing their exercise levels—but what about throwing in coconut oil to the unchanged diets of sedentary people? It’s just not known… and if I can come up with this many questions without being a scientist or health professional, what would someone with training think?

So, of course, I asked Kelly about the big picture on coconut oil, and she said that right now that it’s neutral. It’s not great, it’s not awful, and a lot more research needs to be done before we can be sure about the major health claims.
I feel good about that—it fits with my overall belief that when something seems too good to be true, it may well be… 🙂

So I’ve summed up what I currently think the coconut oil situation is, as I understand it:

The good is that ONE study has shown some unexpectedly good results about what coconut oil might do for weight loss, belly fat, and improving cholesterol, which is neat because it contradicts what we tend to think about saturated fats and their effects on our diets.

The bad is that we just can’t say absolutely yet that coconut oil really is a wonder food—so a little skepticism is OK.

The ugly seems to be the marketing of this one study, treating it as if it’s more definitively awesome than it has proven to be—yet.

Nutrition is confusing! I think I’ll just keep doing what I know will work for improving my cholesterol, just like what I know will work for improving my weight and health: more exercise, more attention to my diet, less stress.
I continue to be a nerd… but am I alone in this? What do you do when you’re uncertain about the health claims about certain foods?