Coconut oil is like eggs with the media. For a while, you hear it’s good for you. Then you hear it’s actually bad for you. Then it’s back to being okay. Lastly, we heard that it is “pure poison”.

There are in fact oils being sold that come closer to being a poison (Ehm.. soybean oil) (20), but coconut oil isn’t one of them. In this article, I’m going to review the evidence surrounding coconut oil, how it relates to cardiovascular disease / heart health, and why you might want to start including it in your diet.

What type of Coconut oil?

We have to start here because otherwise there will always be arguments. In this article, when I refer to coconut oil, I’ll be exclusively talking about unrefined, virgin coconut oil. Why? Because this is the only type of coconut oil that is worth consuming.

Coconut oil is not defined like olive oil is. For olive oil, there is refined, virgin, and extra virgin. For coconut oil, there is really only refined and virgin. However, the term “virgin” isn’t regulated very well, and thus I would always buy organic, unrefined or cold/expeller pressed virgin coconut oil. This ensures that nothing has been taken out of the oil and it has not been heated much.

Why shouldn’t you buy refined? For the same reason that you shouldn’t buy refined olive oil: you lose all of the anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative phytonutrients / polyphenols.

Polyphenols in unrefined food are, in essence, what makes it healthier than refined food, like I talked about in my article about fruit.

The polyphenols in coconut oil have been shown to protect from cell death due to oxidative stress (1), enhances the anti-oxidant status of the body and protects from lipid and protein oxidation (which cause damage to cells) (2) and can protect from damage and cardiovascular risk due from heavy metal toxicity (3). In essence, the polyphenols greatly enhance the health benefits of coconut oil. In fact, in pretty much all of the studies in which coconut oil did not have a favorable outcome, the coconut oil that was used was refined or hydrogenated, and thus had all these beneficial molecules taken out.

Thus, the only type of coconut oil that you should use is the kind that strongly smells like coconut, as you are literally smelling the polyphenols!

What is Coconut oil?

Coconut oil is over 90% saturated fat. How could I be arguing that it is good for you then? The fact that coconut oil is mainly saturated is the sole reason that “nutrition experts” will tell you to avoid it. This point of view is extremely short-sighted, and demonstrates that the “expert” has never even taken a cursory look at the actual evidence.

Before I move on, I want to bring up a point that arises often. That is the difference between hypothesis / theory and evidence. Yes coconut oil is mainly saturated, and we have older research that showed that some forms of saturated fat, if eaten in excess, can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Yet, coconut oil was not actually studied in this older research – it was mainly animal fat. Thus, we could create a hypothesis that adding coconut oil to a diet would elevate the risk of cardiovascular disease because it is also saturated. However, we now have numerable studies that have investigated this that has shown this hypothesis to be false. Thus, we should be giving recommendations based on this evidence and not on worn-out theory.

/end-rant

Unrefined coconut oil is different from other types of saturated fat in two big ways:

  1. It is mainly composed of medium chain fatty acids (~65%), which are burned for energy more readily than long chain fatty acids. The main medium chain fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid (12 carbons long), which has anti-cancer effects (4, 5, 6, 7) and does not have the metabolic issues that the most common saturated fatty acid, palmitic acid (16 carbons long), found it animal fat and palm oil, has (8, 9).
  2. It is abundant with polyphenols / phytonutrients, which other forms of saturated fat, like animal fat, do not have. This not only negates any “risk” that the oil may have, but also greatly increases the positive benefits. These polyphenols are so powerful, that multiple animal studies have shown that adding virgin coconut oil on top of a diet filled with repeatedly heated palm oil (another type of saturated fat, and heating it creates damaging peroxides like any oil) completely negated the rise in blood pressure and heart / kidney damage that occurred from the heated palm oil! (10, 11, 12, 13)
Blood pressure in rats fed control diet, virgin coconut oil (VCO), 5 times heated palm oil (5HPO), or both (5HPO+VCO) (13)

What Do Animal Studies Say About the Effect of Coconut oil on Cardiovascular Disease Risk?

I won’t spend a whole lot of time in this section because honestly the human trials matter a lot more. However, the animal data can help to provide mechanisms regarding the effect of coconut oil on cardiovascular disease.

Here are some key studies and the take-aways:

  • Virgin coconut oil fed to rats at 8% was superior to other oils (including unrefined olive oil) at decreasing oxidative stress and oxidation products, increasing antioxidants such as glutathione in the body, and increasing paraoxygenase 1, an enzyme which is known to reduce atherosclerosis risk. (14, 15)
  • Rats fed a diet with 10% or 15% virgin coconut oil had improved lipid / cholesterol profiles, decreased oxidative stress, improved liver and kidney health, and decreased the risk of atherosclerosis (16)
  • Virgin coconut oil fed to mice at various doses all improved blood glucose control, lowered liver fat, lowered body fat, decreased “bad” LDL cholesterol, and lowered overall inflammation in mice fed a diet high in refined carbohydrates (17)
  • Virgin coconut oil reversed the increase in liver fat (i.e. non-alcoholic fatty liver disease) and liver enzyme activities, increased the antioxidant status, restored normal liver architecture, and increased “good” HDL cholesterol in rats fed a high fructose diet (18)
  • Virgin coconut oil improved the lipid / cholesterol profile, the antioxidant status, and liver and kidney dysfunction in type 1 diabetic rats (19)

I could keep going, but I think you get the point. Giving virgin coconut oil to rodents tends to do very good things, and these are animals that typically respond poorly to “high fat diets”.

What About Human Evidence?

This is what actually matters. What happens when you give coconut oil to humans in place of other oils? Well, besides a minor drop in body fat (21, 22) that typically occurs, you get the following:

  • Adding just over a tablespoon of virgin coconut oil a day increases HDL significantly without affecting “bad” LDL, showing a cardiovascular-protective effect (23)
  • A 2-year study showed that using coconut oil did not increase the risk of cardiovascular disease nor increase cholesterol levels compared to using sunflower oil in patients with stable coronary heart disease. (24) Note: they did not make sure that the participants were using unrefined coconut oil, thus the results are likely inferior compared to what would have happened if they were using coconut oil that still had all its polyphenols.
  • Coconut oil use was only associated with positive effects on HDL levels in women in the Philippines. (25)
  • Virgin coconut oil for 3 months reduced the waist circumference (a way to approximate body fat) and increased HDL and Apo-A in coronary artery disease patients on top of what changing the patients’ diet to be more healthy could do by itself. (26)
  • This last study was very large, well controlled, and included a good comparison (extra virgin olive oil). In this study, 94 participants got 50 grams a day of either butter, virgin coconut oil, or extra virgin olive oil for one month. At the end of the month, the butter group had the worst results (increased LDL, increased LDL/HDL ratio). The extra virgin olive oil and the virgin coconut oil had very similar beneficial results in every parameter except that coconut oil caused a rise in HDL whereas olive oil did not. Coconut oil also decreased C-reactive protein (a marker of general inflammation) the most. (27) The authors conclude their discussion with the following:

…the findings highlight the need for further elucidation of the more nuanced relationships between different dietary fats and health. There is increasing evidence that to understand the relationship between diet and health, we need to go beyond simplistic associations between individual nutrients and health outcomes and examine foods and dietary patterns as a whole. (27)

In Conclusion

As we can now see, it doesn’t make sense to avoid virgin coconut oil just because it is “saturated”. Being saturated is actually just one way you can classify fatty acids, but there are different types of saturated fat (identified by different chain lengths), and coconut oil has a predominantly shorter chain length than other types of saturated fat, so the older research based on other types of saturated fat cannot immediately apply to coconut oil without actually testing it.

And now that we have started testing it, it is becoming clear that not only does coconut oil not seem to possess certain health hazards that other forms of saturated fat might, but it seems to actually improve health markers when added to a diet.

Virgin coconut oil actually has other benefits that were not listed in this article as it would become too long and off-topic, but future articles will be addressing those benefits.

One last thing I want to mention: In this article we have talked mainly about coconut oil’s ability to change LDL and HDL. These are only a couple markers of cardiovascular disease risk. We now know that in addition to LDL, HDL, and triglycerides, the ability for LDL to oxidize is very important to determine cardiovascular disease risk. Once the LDL oxidizes, then it gets taken up by “foam” cells and can contribute to plaque on the walls of arteries. (28, 29)

More “unsaturated” a fat is, the higher the ability for it to oxidize inside the body. Since coconut oil is highly saturated, it resists oxidation. Saturated fats a much, much less likely to oxidize than polyunsaturated fats (soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, etc.) and even monounsaturated fats (olive oil and avocado oil).

Virgin coconut has been shown to prevent LDL oxidation. (30) The polyphenols in the virgin coconut oil were shown to play a large role here as well, which is important, because other forms of saturated fat (with no polyphenols) might actually be able to increase LDL oxidation. (31)

So there you have it! Don’t worry about consuming good quality coconut oil, and stay tuned for further benefits of unrefined coconut oil!

Please leave any comments or questions below! Share this article with anyone who might be interested or benefit from it!

References
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  2. Arunima, S., & Rajamohan, T. (2013). Effect of virgin coconut oil enriched diet on the antioxidant status and paraoxonase 1 activity in ameliorating the oxidative stress in rats – a comparative study. Food & Function, 4(9), 1402. https://doi.org/10.1039/c3fo60085h
  3. Famurewa AC, Ejezie FE. Polyphenols isolated from virgin coconut oil attenuate cadmium-induced dyslipidemia and oxidative stress due to their antioxidant properties and potential benefits on cardiovascular risk ratios in rats. Avicenna J Phytomed. 2018;8(1):73–84.
  4. Sheela, D., Narayanankutty, A., Nazeem, P., Raghavamenon, A., & Muthangaparambil, S. (2019). Lauric acid induce cell death in colon cancer cells mediated by the epidermal growth factor receptor downregulation: An in silico and in vitro study. Human & Experimental Toxicology, 38(7), 753–761. https://doi.org/10.1177/0960327119839185
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  12. Kamisah, Y., Ang, S.-M., Othman, F., Nurul-Iman, B. S., & Qodriyah, H. M. S. (2016). Renoprotective effect of virgin coconut oil in heated palm oil diet-induced hypertensive rats. Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism, 41(10), 1033–1038. https://doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2016-0029
  13. Nurul-Iman BS, Kamisah Y, Jaarin K, Qodriyah HM. Virgin coconut oil prevents blood pressure elevation and improves endothelial functions in rats fed with repeatedly heated palm oil. Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013;2013:629329. doi:10.1155/2013/629329
  14. Arunima, S., & Rajamohan, T. (2013). Effect of virgin coconut oil enriched diet on the antioxidant status and paraoxonase 1 activity in ameliorating the oxidative stress in rats – a comparative study. Food & Function, 4(9), 1402. https://doi.org/10.1039/c3fo60085h
  15. Litvinov D, Mahini H, Garelnabi M. Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory role of paraoxonase 1: implication in arteriosclerosis diseases. N Am J Med Sci. 2012;4(11):523–532. doi:10.4103/1947-2714.103310
  16. Famurewa, A. C., Ekeleme-Egedigwe, C. A., Nwali, S. C., Agbo, N. N., Obi, J. N., & Ezechukwu, G. C. (2017). Dietary Supplementation with Virgin Coconut Oil Improves Lipid Profile and Hepatic Antioxidant Status and Has Potential Benefits on Cardiovascular Risk Indices in Normal Rats. Journal of Dietary Supplements, 15(3), 330–342. https://doi.org/10.1080/19390211.2017.1346031
  17. Zicker, M. C., Silveira, A. L. M., Lacerda, D. R., Rodrigues, D. F., Oliveira, C. T., de Souza Cordeiro, L. M., … Ferreira, A. V. M. (2019). Virgin coconut oil is effective to treat metabolic and inflammatory dysfunction induced by high refined carbohydrate-containing diet in mice. The Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, 63, 117–128. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jnutbio.2018.08.013
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