After its use decreased in recent decades due to its high saturated fatty acid content, coconut oil has been making a comeback. Marketing claims for coconut oil can be found on websites, product literature, magazine articles, books promoting its use, and by TV personalities.
According to these sources, health benefits of coconut oil are associated with a wide range of medical conditions, including obesity, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes, chronic fatigue, Crohn's disease, irritable bowel syndrome and thyroid conditions.
Many of the purported health benefits attributed to coconut oil are thought to be associated with its high content of medium-chain fatty acids, which unlike long-chain fatty acids are not stored in adipose tissue. Lauric acid (12.0), a medium-chain fatty acid, is the predominant fatty acid in coconut oil, while myristic acid (14:0) and palmitic acid (16:0), two types of long-chain fatty acids, account for approximately 25% of the fat found in coconut oil.
A recent systematic review and meta-analysis evaluating the effect of coconut oil consumption on risk factors for cardiovascular disease suggested that lauric acid may not be metabolized in the same manner as other types of medium-chain fatty acids but more like longer chain fatty acids. This published research included a comparison of 16 clinical trials examining the consumption of coconut oil to nontropical vegetable oils, such as olive and canola oils, and found that coconut oil significantly increased both total cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. A significant increase in total- and LDL-cholesterol was also noted with coconut oil consumption compared to palm oil, another major source of saturated fat. In addition, the researchers found that coconut oil consumption was not linked to lower rates of inflammation, better glycemic control, or reduced body fat compared with nontropical vegetable oils.
These findings are consistent with the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, which indicates except for it being possibly effective when used topically to treat eczema in pediatric patients, there is insufficient reliable evidence at this time to rate coconut oil's effectiveness in treating any other conditions.
To reduce the risk of chronic diseases, it is recommended that Americans consume less than 10% of calories from saturated fat per day. To meet this goal, registered dietitian nutritionists can help patients and clients adopt a healthy eating style which includes increasing the consumption of fruits and vegetables, choosing leaner protein foods, switching to low-fat or fat-free dairy products, including more whole-grains, using vegetable oils in place of solid fats, while limiting added sugars, sodium, and foods containing partially hydrogenated oils.
Answering questions and concerns about coconut oil and its relationship to health and an overall eating pattern requires RDNs to stay current with science-based recommendations and being mindful of emerging research.
- Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database. Accessed June 19, 2020. Subscription required.
- Neelakantan N, Seah JYH, van Dam RM. The Effect of Coconut Oil Consumption on Cardiovascular Risk Factors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Clinical Trials. Circulation. 2020;141(10):803-814.
- AHA/ACC Guideline on Lifestyle Management to Reduce Cardiovascular Risk: A Report of the American College of Cardiology/American heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. American Heart Association. 2013: 1-45.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and U.S. Department of Agriculture. 2015 – 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. 8th Edition. December 2015.
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