Coconut oil has been famed for having healing properties, easing digestion, improving heart health, and giving back youth and vitality to skin, hair and nails. Let's take a look at the facts and latest research to dispel any myths and misconceptions you may have had about this tropical source of plant fat.
If you are interested to know what the buzzword "MCT" or "Medium Chain Triglycerides" is all about, then this paragraph is for you! If not, you can skip over to the next one. Your body absorbs pure MCT's without breaking them down, and they go straight to the liver to be processed immediately just like carbohydrates (this is why some athletes take MCT oil - for immediate fuel). Coconut oil has a fatty acid profile that includes about 50% medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). In hospitals, MCT's from coconut oil and other oils are used to provide nutrition through an IV to patients who can't eat. MCT's may be put through a feeding tube into the digestive tract of people who have significant problems digesting and absorbing fats, like in pancreatitis and after removal of parts of the intestine. The fact of improved digestibility and absorption of isolatedMCT oil led to the excitement over coconut oil, since it has 50% oil as MCT's. Unless you have significant digestive problems like those stated above, it is unlikely that you need your fats to come from MCT oil.
Given that saturated fat of all types in excess will increase cholesterol, health professionals do not currently recommend coconut oil over various other heart healthy oils. In coconut oil, the most prevalent fatty acid - lauric acid - raises HDL cholesterol (the "good" kind of cholesterol) more than it raises LDL cholesterol (the kind of cholesterol that is deposited into your tissues). This is why people might claim coconut oil "doesn't promote fat storage as much as other fats". While that might be true on a molecular level, don't expect to automatically drop body fat percentage if you switch to coconut oil as your predominant source of oil. You are a whole person influenced not by individual nutrients, but by the healthiness and energy balance in your overall diet and an accompanying healthy lifestyle.
Lauric acid is metabolized into a powerful antiviral, anti-fungal and antiseptic compound in your body, and there is some evidence that coconut products provide some of this protection, however there is inadequate evidence to provide a recommendation to actually choose it specifically. Note that these benefits of coconut oil only seem to come into effect when a person is already consuming an unprocessed, plant-based, high-fiber diet.
Coconut oil didn't get a bad rap until about the 1950's, when there was a consensus that diets high in saturated fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and weight gain. With emerging research on coconut oil and inflamed media buzz around it, coconut oil is back on the radar for food trends. But now you know the facts! From this Dietitian's perspective, it would be your personal preference whether or not to incorporate it into your diet. On a personal note, I find that a tiny dab tastes great with eggs, and it is a great natural moisturizer for sensitive dry skin. You can weigh the possible benefits of substituting coconut oil for flavour for other saturated fats in your diet with the possibility that you would just add extra calories. Remember that there are sources other healthy omega-3 or monounsaturated fat rich foods like olive oil, olives, flaxseed, chia seeds, almonds, avocado, and other nuts and seeds.
Ultimately, the evidence on the benefits of coconut oil is still inconclusive. If you consume a diet with a lot of animal products like dairy products, butter, and meats, you likely get more than enough saturated fat. You might simply be considering substituting coconut oil for butter if you prefer the taste of coconut. The possible antimicrobial benefits of coconut oil are matched and exceeded by the anti-microbial, disease-preventing benefits of eating a diet rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and anti-inflammatory spices.
Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Gretchen Vannice, MS, RDN, Heather Rasmussen, PhD, RD. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Dietary Fatty Acids for Healthy Adults. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, January 2014. Vol 114(2): 136-53. January 2014. Accessed Nov 8, 2014 from <http://www.andjrnl.org/article/S2212-2672(13)01672-9/fulltext#sec9.2>
Brenda Davis, RD and Vesanto Melina, MS, RD. (2013) Becoming Vegan: Express Edition: The Everyday Guide to Plant-Based Nutrition. Summertown, TN: Book Publishing Company.