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The whole-body benefits of coconut oil

Coconut oil is the rich, fatty oil derived from the meat of coconuts. It is sold on its own or used in cosmetic products, prepared foods, and candies. Its use has been highlighted in many health-related conversations, but not all of its perceived benefits have been backed by evidence. It may benefit your skin, hair, brain, and oral health.

This article discusses the potential whole-body benefits of coconut oil, the terminology regarding it, and how to cook with it.

What is coconut oil good for?

Coconut Oil
Image Credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya/Pexels

Coconut oil is used in multiple ways, from cooking to personal care, but people may wonder if it’s healthy. While there are countless personal accounts of its benefits, it lacks robust scientific evidence to support these claims.

A lack of research doesn’t necessarily indicate coconut oil isn’t beneficial, but it’s helpful to look at study findings when making an assessment of its usefulness.

Unlikely to support heart health

Some studies have suggested that coconut oil may increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) “good” cholesterol levels, while others indicate it increases low-density lipoprotein (LDL) “bad” cholesterol levels. Most research suggests an association between a high intake of saturated fat and heart problems.

This is why Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends limiting your saturated fat intake to 10% of your total daily calories. Since the oil is saturated fat, it’s best to eat it in moderation.

May support healthy weight maintenance

The predominant type of saturated fat in coconut oil is medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Some evidence suggests that consuming MCTs may help your body burn more fat and calories, but results are still largely inconclusive.

More research, specifically on coconut oil, is needed, especially because it is so calorie-dense and could easily contribute to unwanted weight gain.

May provide quick energy

MCTs, however, may be used as a fast energy source. This is because, when you consume MCTs, they are metabolised similarly to carbohydrates, our body’s preferred energy source. Instead of first going through your blood, muscles, and tissues like long-chain triglycerides, MCTs go straight to your liver.

Offers antimicrobial properties

Coconut oil may also have antimicrobial properties. Approximately half of the MCTs in oil are made up of a fatty acid called lauric acid. Some research suggests that lauric acid can help act against potentially harmful microorganisms. This is one reason why many people use this oil as part of their hair, skin, and oral care routines.

Improves skin dryness

Many people find that coconut oil can improve dry skin and lips, and several studies agree. Applying the oil topically can help increase skin moisture content and protect your skin from external factors like allergens, chemicals, and other environmental irritants.

Just apply a small amount of it from the jar to your hands, feet, skin, or lips and allow it to soak in.

Strengthens and protects hair

Some people apply coconut oil to their hair to help improve scalp and hair dryness and to lock in moisture. Some research has found that putting the oil in your hair can help strengthen it, reduce breakage, and nourish the strands. This may be because it makes hair strands more flexible and less easily breakable.

Supports oral health

Oil pulling became popular a few years ago and uses coconut oil to improve oral hygiene. It’s essentially a process of using it as a mouthwash, and some evidence supports it.

To practice oil pulling, swish coconut oil around your mouth as you would mouthwash and then spit it out. Some studies have found that it can reduce harmful bacteria in the mouth, which researchers attribute to its lauric acid content.

Other research suggests that it may help reduce plaque and gum inflammation, helping to prevent cavities. However, coconut oil should not replace other dental hygiene practices, like regular brushing and flossing.

Nutrients in coconut oil

coconut oil
Image Credit: Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash

Coconut oil is one of the only plant-based fats that forms a solid at room temperature because of its high saturated fat content. The oil is 100% fat, primarily made of medium-chain triglycerides (a type of fat), and contains no protein or carbohydrates. Because fat is the macronutrient with the most calories per gram, coconut oil is also very high in calories.

There are few nutrients in the oil, as most of the vitamins and minerals that naturally occur in coconuts are not transferred to oil during processing.

Below is the nutritional value of 1 tablespoon of coconut oil:

  • Calories: 121
  • Protein: 0 grams
  • Total fat: 13.5 grams
  • Saturated fat: 11.2 grams
  • Monounsaturated fat: 0.86 grams
  • Polyunsaturated fat: 0.23 grams
  • Carbohydrates: 0 grams
  • Fibre: 0 grams
  • Sugar: 0 grams
  • Calcium: 0.14 mg
  • Choline: 0.04 mg
  • Vitamin E: 0.015 mg
  • Vitamin K: 0.082 mcg

Coconut oil terminology

You’ve probably noticed that coconut oil comes in various forms, and certain products carry different labels. Below are the definitions of the terms you often see on the products.

Image Credit:
Towfiqu barbhuiya/Unsplash

Unrefined

Unrefined coconut oil comes directly from the meat of the coconut and is the least processed and unfiltered option. It doesn’t undergo any processing to make the final product more hydrogenated, which is a way to convert unsaturated fatty acids into saturated fatty acids.

This oil has a more pungent coconut smell and flavour. Use it in recipes in which you want to have a strong coconut taste. It has a smoke point of 350 degrees F, the temperature to which it can be heated before it starts to smoke and degrade.

Refined

Refined coconut oil also comes from coconut meat but is further processed to make it better for cooking. After it is pressed from the coconut, it may undergo a few additional steps.

First, it may be combined with a degumming agent to remove gums (impurities). Then, it may be neutralised with lye or sodium hydroxide, which acts like soap when combined with the present fatty acids. The free fatty acids are removed during this process, which helps reduce the risk of refined coconut oil becoming rancid.

Refined version may also be bleached using an activated clay filter to make it whiter and more homogenous and then deodorised to make it odourless and flavourless.

After all this processing, refined coconut gains a higher smoke point of 400–450 degrees F. This allows it more culinary versatility than unrefined coconut oil.

Virgin

“Virgin coconut oil” is another name for the unrefined version. This label simply indicates that the oil you’re getting has not been processed.

Organic

Organic coconut oil indicates that the coconuts from which the oil has been derived were grown in compliance with the requirements of organic agriculture. This refers to the use of pesticides and herbicides, soil quality, and additives, among other factors.

If you’re looking for coconut oil that has been officially certified organic, meaning it has undergone steps to achieve a formal organic verification through the US government’s National Organic Program, look for products that bear the green and white USDA Organic seal.

How to cook with coconut oil

Coconut oil may seem intimidating to cook with since it’s a solid and not a liquid. However, it is easy to use in recipes.

Coconut oil will melt when heated. To use it for sautéeing, add a small amount to your skillet and allow it to liquefy. Then, add the ingredients you want to cook just as you would if using another plant oil. Just be careful not to heat it over its smoke point, which varies if it is refined or unrefined.

In most baked goods recipes, coconut oil can be used as a 1-to-1 replacement for butter. Additionally, you can melt the oil in a pan or the microwave and then drizzle it over cooked popcorn as you would melted butter. Some people add a small amount of melted coconut oil to their coffee.

You can also combine the oil with melted chocolate or peanut butter before freezing it into candy moulds. It will harden when cold, leaving you with solid chocolate candy for later.

Summary

Coconut oil is derived from the meat of coconuts and its uses range from culinary to personal care. It has a very high saturated fat content, most of which are medium-chain triglycerides and lauric acid, and is high in calories.

The two main types of coconut oil are refined and unrefined, which have undergone varying degrees of processing and have different uses in cooking. While people have used it for many health purposes, it is best suited for use as an antimicrobial mouthwash, as an emollient to improve dry skin, and as an agent to strengthen hair.

A word of wellness

While some evidence suggests that coconut oil may offer benefits for things like skin, hair, and oral health, it’s not meant to replace other daily hygiene practices like brushing your teeth. The evidence for coconut oil as a healthy food is lacking.

Given the research behind saturated fat intake and heart health, it’s best to use it sparingly in your diet. Instead, try using it to improve dryness on your skin, lips, and scalp, strengthen your hair, and complement your oral health routine.

This story first appeared on www.verywellhealth.com

(Credit for the hero and featured image: Dana Tentis/Pexels)

© 2021. Health Media Ventures, Inc. . All rights reserved.  Licensed from Health.com and published with permission of Health Media Ventures, Inc. . Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without prior written permission is prohibited.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Question: How much coconut oil is safe to eat per day?

Answer: Coconut oil is almost entirely saturated fat. It's recommended to keep your total saturated fat intake under 10% of your daily calories. Based on a 2,200-calorie diet, this would equate to 220 calories from coconut oil, which you would get from less than 2 tablespoons of it. It also means that you would need to limit other sources of saturated fat in your diet, such as animal products.

Question: How long should you leave coconut oil on your scalp?

Answer: While there is no standard for coconut oil scalp treatments, most people leave it on the scalp for 10–30 minutes at a time.

Question: Do coconut fats cause side effects?

Answer: Yes. Coconut oil is almost entirely made up of saturated fat. While there has been controversy around its pros and cons, intake should not exceed 10% of your total daily calories. This is because high intakes of saturated fat have been associated with adverse effects on heart health. Until there is more clarity around this association, keeping your overall saturated fat intake within these limits is best.

The whole-body benefits of coconut oil

Lauren Panoff, MPH, RD


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