Nutrition News & Views

Is coconut oil the new “Good Fat”?

coconut oil

Unfortunately, not everything that tastes good is good for you… many people are unaware of the nutrition pitfalls associated with dietary fats.

The recent trend of using coconut oil and drinking coconut-laden drinks or coconut-added instant coffees is touted as being healthy, but can actually add calories and fat and have an effect on cholesterol and heart risk.

The health claims are due to coconut oil containing medium-chain fatty acids, which some limited studies have indicated to have health benefits such as increased energy, helping with weight loss, reducing cholesterol levels and reducing type 2 diabetes.

Medium-chain fatty acids are found in coconut oil (with levels of up to 50%), palm kernel oil, and in small amounts in dairy products. As the name suggests, the length of the carbon molecules in the fat "chain" lies between short-chain fatty acids and long-chain fatty acids, which are the commonly-used oils and fats.

The number of carbon atoms in each acid chain determinses how the body processes the fat.

Both "good, healthy" unsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and "bad" saturated fats have long chains. Short-chain fats are created during digestion by bacteria in the large intestine, and provide an energy source for the intestinal cells.

Medium-chain fats are readily absorbed by the body and rapidly converted to energy sources in the liver, in contrast to long-chain fats which circulate in the blood for some time before being processed, or are stored in the adipose tissue (body fat) causing, you guessed it, weight gain.

So the theory is that coconut oil doesn’t cause weight gain because it is rapidly-processed.

However, coconut oil is still fat – incidentally, it’s a type of saturated fat - and it therefore has an effect on cholesterol levels.

One of the claims made for it is that it increases "good" cholesterol (HDL cholesterol), but another study found it actually raised levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol, with side effects in some people that included nausea, bloating and diarrhoea.

So, the takeaway is that the health benefits of medium-chain fats such as coconut oil are still far from proven, despite some anecdotal evidence.

In some instances, medium-chain fats are a source of energy for people with malabsorption syndromes, but for the general public, these are not warranted.

My thoughts? Well, I won’t be adding yet another fat to my diet, and especially not to my coffee.

-- Natalia Knezevic

Natalia Knezevic is a dietitian and NDIS Provider in Orange, NSW.