By Kate Tietje
Updated by Rustina
If you’ve had even a passing interest in natural living, then you have probably heard that coconut oil is a cure-all. Then, on the mainstream side, the internet has been all in a tizzy over reports of coconut oil being a heart risk telling you to stay away from it!
It’s time to set the record straight…with actual research.
So…is coconut oil good or bad?
The truth about coconut oil
There’s a lot of conflicting evidence on coconut oil out there. And, bottom line…it seems to vary by how you look at the data. Some people are looking at it with a population-level data viewpoint of traditional diets, and some are looking at it in an isolated way (lab studies that directly compare coconut oil vs. other oil, with no other dietary differences).
In general, what they find is this:
The population level crowd can point to many large populations of people who consume a lot of coconut products as part of their traditional diet, and who have very low rates of heart disease and other modern issues. They use this as evidence that the coconut itself is protective against these diseases.
The isolated crowd can point to a handful of studies (at least 21, in this review) where coconut oil, when directly compared to another oil, appeared to increase the risk of heart disease. They use this as evidence that coconut oil is dangerous and should not be consumed.
So who is right?
In some ways, both.
The truth is, coconut oil is not a miracle food. If you are eating an unhealthy diet, adding in a spoonful of coconut oil everyday won’t fix things. In fact, it could possibly make things worse, if you believe the isolated studies. What we eat really matters.
But, coconut oil, as part of a healthy diet of unprocessed foods, is healthy and will not cause issues.
Coconut oil does not need to be raised to the status of some holy, beyond-reproach food. It has its uses, and in the context of a healthy diet, is perfectly safe to consume.
Why the diet matters
There were vastly different diet types in the population-level studies vs. the isolated studies, which likely had way more to do with the outcome than which oil type they were using.
In the population-level studies, people were generally eating a lot of starchy veggies (along the lines of sweet potatoes) and a lot of fish, in addition to large amounts of coconut products. Diets varied a bit, but these were the major components. Diets were generally quite limited in scope.
It’s also important to note that these groups of people ate whole coconut products, and not generally coconut oil in isolation. Coconuts come with milk, water, cream, and flesh — not just oil.
In the isolated studies, people were eating a more Western-type diet, higher in processed foods, especially refined grains and sugar. Coconut oil could not overcome these negative impacts.
Stop using coconut oil as a cure-all
I’ve been in the natural community for a long time. Long enough to know that, every year or two, some new natural item becomes “the favorite.” It is the new miracle cure trend, it will help everything, and everyone needs to be on it, now! (I think we are onto olive oil right now, right?)
Previously, the favorite was CBD oil — and that’s a topic for another day. For a long time, though, coconut oil has been a favorite, and it is still recommended often.
Except that these days, I usually see coconut oil mentioned more like this: “My child has this issue, and I put coconut oil on it, but it didn’t help! What else can I do?”
Coconut oil has its uses, but it is not a miracle. It is not the right oil or remedy to use for absolutely everything. To understand why that is, we need to take a look at coconut oil’s chemistry.
Coconut oil on a chemical level
Everything’s a chemical, you guys. The mainstream is laughing at us because we “don’t like chemicals.” Clarify that you don’t like harsh/dangerous chemicals, please. Because I’m 100% against unnecessary or dangerous chemicals, whether natural or not-so-much (and we all should be!).
Anyway, coconut oil’s chemistry.
Every oil has a different mix of fatty acids. These different fatty acids determine how the oil behaves and what it is good for, in and on, the body. Not all coconut oils are the same either. It depends heavily on how they are processed. Unrefined (extra virgin) cold pressed coconut oil will have the most properties retained.
Coconut oil breaks down like this (1):
- Caprylic: 5 – 9%
- Capric: 6 – 10%
- Lauric: 44 – 52%
- Myristic: 13 – 19%
- Palmitic: 8 – 11%
- Stearic: 1 – 3%
- Oleic: 5 – 8%
- Linoleic: 0 – 1%
- Linolenic: 0 – 1%
The reason everyone loves coconut oil is the lauric acid. It is pretty awesome stuff — it’s known as an immunomodulator, and kills bacteria, viruses, and fungi. It’s definitely beneficial when used in certain cases (which I’ll get to at the end).
But, this fatty acid profile also shows the reason why coconut oil isn’t really the best fit for skin and hair. Lauric acid is not the best for skin/hair uses. Palmitic and myristic acids are good for cleansing and are kind of “strong,” rather than gently moisturizing. Coconut oil itself is also moderately comedogenic, about a 3 (on a scale of 0 — won’t clog pores at all — to 5 — almost always clogs pores).
Coconut oil is also a rather ‘dry’ oil. That is, it isn’t that moisturizing for many skin types. In fact, some people find it makes their dry skin worse! (See below for more moisturizing oils)
What can we take from this?
Diets high in whole coconut products, fresh veggies, and seafood are generally healthy. Diets that are high in refined grains and sugar regardless of coconut oil addition, are not.
This does mean that the way that we use coconut oil in the Western world sometimes is potentially unsafe. Some people swap it for butter in baked goods (which research says is slightly better). But, choosing to use refined coconut oil, white flour, and sugar to bake and hoping to reap the benefits of coconut oil is just not going to happen. Not really — at least not in terms of heart disease reduction.
Overall, this highlights how important our diet is as a whole, and that no single food is individually a miracle. We also cannot expect to eat 90% junk food, then incorporate the latest “super food,” and expect to see miraculous health changes. What we eat most of the time is what matters.
Please do note that coconut oil is an isolate of the whole coconut. Over-consumption of coconut oil is not ideal; consumption of the entire coconut and all its parts is better. As much as possible, we need to eat whole foods!
Does Coconut Oil Have Other Benefits?
So, coconut is a healthy food, in its whole form, and in the context of an otherwise healthy, unprocessed diet. All of the isolated studies have focused on heart disease risk. But what about other potential benefits of coconut oil?
There are actually a whole bunch of studies. (Click the links below to see the studies.)
- Coconut oil may reduce stress
- Whole coconut may treat or prevent Alzheimer’s
- Coconut oil has a beneficial effect on cholesterol levels, including lowering LDL
- Coconut oil protects brain health
- Coconut oil may reduce unhealthy yeast in the gut
- Soybean oil increases the risk of diabetes and obesity more than coconut oil
Obviously, yes, coconut oil has other health benefits.
And, other studies show that coconut oil is healthier (even in terms of heart disease and diabetes risk) than some polyunsaturated oils — the opposite of what this new “review” purported to find!
Coconut oil has clear health benefits, so avoiding consumption entirely because of a few silly news articles is ridiculous. Just keep in mind it’s not a panacea; it’s one part of a healthy diet.
Views on Health are Important
The truth is, we will never find the “truth” about a single optimal diet for humans, because there isn’t one. Every human has a different body chemistry, and what’s right for one person may not work for another.
Modern science generally ignores this, and assumes that by studying large enough groups of people and isolating each ingredient, we can definitively answer whether or not that food is healthy. But we can’t really do that because people vary so much, and because we don’t eat single foods in isolation. Every food we eat counts towards making healthy or unhealthy choices, and it’s our diet as a whole that really matters.
The holistic and traditional view of things aims to look at our diet as a whole, acknowledging that you cannot isolate a single ingredient and see its effects on the body — because that’s just not a real-world scenario. What we consume with that single food matters. It can change how our bodies metabolize foods.
While Western medicine has its place, it is terrible with nutrition. All of the Western advice on diet has been terrible, and continues to be terrible, as people who generally follow a Western diet have high rates of cancer, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and other serious health issues.
In short, I wouldn’t consider Western advice on diet very strongly. Well, probably not at all.
Make of all this what you will, but never blindly trust the media. They tend to blow things out of proportion, and report preliminary or minor findings as major news. Always look more closely instead of just believing what you read.
When to Use Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is the right fit for issues like bacteria/fungal issues on the skin and can help internally as well. This includes:
- Topical yeast infections
- Athlete’s foot
- Cradle cap
- Yeast diaper rashes
You can use it plain or as an herb infused oil for topical or internal support like parasite detoxes.
Keep coconut oil in your cabinet for cooking and occasional remedy use, when it’s really the right remedy. Basically, if you’re treating yeast or some types of bacteria, coconut oil is a good choice. But don’t get carried away and think it’s really a cure-all. Coconut oil has its place, but it isn’t magic. Just like other useful but not cure-all tools like colloidal silver and oil of oregano.
If you have other concerns, instead of coconut oil, try…
- Pink eye — Calendula flower salve or tea
- Peeling baby skin — Apricot oil
- Bug bites — Drawing salve (DIY or buy)
- Moisturizer — Jojoba oil or rosehip seed oil (or buy this)
- Minor rashes — Calendula flower salve or plantain salve (or buy this)
- Immune support — Echinacea, astragalus root, schisandra berries (or buy this)
Look for monounsaturated plant oils for skin care. These oils are rich in oleic acid and have anti-inflammatory properties. They soothe redness, irritation, and moisturize deeply.
They are excellent for dry and sensitive skin. This is especially true If you’re looking for gentle, moisturizing skin care oils, especially for a baby or young child.
If you’re looking for oils for oily skin (and yes, you want oils — just the right ones!), try oils that are rich in linoleic acid. These will not clog pores, will not cause acne breakouts, and will moisturize gently.
Also, it isn’t the best sunscreen. It has a slight natural SPF, so some people use it as a natural sunscreen. Many oils have a higher SPF, and work much better – including avocado oil, raspberry seed oil, and carrot seed oil (not the essential oil).
Like most things, moderation and a healthy diet is almost always the answer.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended as medical advice. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA, and nothing in this post is intended to diagnose, treat, or cure anything. If you have questions, please do your own research or seek advice from a health professional.