Can you think of a product that has more people talking about its dozens of health benefits than coconut oil? Can it reeeally be used for hair masks, oil pulling, weight loss, body scrubs, moisturizer, toothpaste, deodorant, improved digestion, AND decreased cholesterol levels? Can one product actually be that magical? Well, I have been wondering that, myself — so I did a lil deep dive into the research to find out the 411. And now I’m here to tell you the TRUTH about coconut oil and whether or not coconut oil is actually healthy!
I’ll be the first to admit that when a food becomes trendy, I am instantly intrigued + skeptical all at once. I’m the kind of person who will sift through the research to find out which claims are true + which claims might have been — shall we say… — *embellished*.
And even after sifting through numerous published research studies in which the evidence might seem quite clear, I still keep in mind that…
NEW RESEARCH IS COMING OUT ALL THE TIME.
Some things that were unveiled through research decades ago (and viewed as fact) are being contradicted in studies coming out today.
Rarely are things black + white — usually there’s a little gray area, if not a lot of gray area. And I’m a huge believer that nutrition is NOT black + white.
I studied it for four years when I got my degree in Dietetics, and then studied it a bit more when I went back to school for nursing. (And currently read published research on PubMed in my free time.) Yes, nutrition is a science. But science is not perfect, nor is it permanent.
Science can change. What is a dietary recommendation today, may not be the recommendation tomorrow.
So based on what we know TODAY — what does the research say on coconut oil?
Is it the oil we should all be cooking with? Does it really make your hair silkier, decrease wrinkles, and improve oral health? Is coconut oil actually healthy? Well friend, let’s find out!! I’m going to kick this off by breaking the research down into commonly asked questions. Here we go…
1. I’ve heard coconut oil has a lot of saturated fat. Isn’t that the bad fat?
Ever since 1980, Americans have been told to consume a diet “low in saturated fats.” So mainstream nutrition messaging has worked! Until relatively recently, we have all been going about our lives believing that saturated fat is BAD NEWS.
However, this nugget of info BLEW. MY MIND.
K, so a group of nutrition scientists got together in February 2020 and released a statement on the latest research related to saturated fat intake + heart disease. This expert group agreed that the best of the best science available today FAILS to support the government’s recommendation for Americans to limit their saturated fat intake.
In fact, these nutrition experts also concluded that…
- Recent studies have found NO significant evidence that says saturated fat consumption impacts total mortality OR death from cardiovascular disease (um, which is what we have all been believing for decades!!!).
- Research shows that there is more than one type of LDL cholesterol (the kind we are told is the “bad” kind). But in most people, reducing saturated fat intake does NOT lower the type of LDL that is truly damaging.
So essentially, we’ve been told saturated fat = increased bad cholesterol = higher risk of heart disease = higher risk of death. Therefore, everyone should eat less saturated fat.
BUT here comes this team of nutrition researchers who sends a letter to the Secretaries of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health & Human Services stating,
“There is no strong scientific evidence that the current population-wide upper limits on commonly consumed saturated fats in the U.S. will prevent cardiovascular disease or reduce mortality. A continued limit on these fats is therefore not justified.”
The letter urged these departments to give “serious and immediate consideration to lifting the limits placed on saturated fat intake for the upcoming 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
Uhhh………. jaw drop.
Y’all, this is not what I was taught in my Dietetics program at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. Or my nursing program at Emory University (ahem, right next door to the CDC). Which just goes back to my previous point that research is constantly evolving.
While the current U.S. dietary guidelines recommend limiting saturated and trans fats, they do not explicitly recommend limiting total fat. We’ll see what happens when the 2020 guidelines come out later this year…
To sum up some of the other research I dug into…
- Coconut oil improves the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL cholesterol (the important cholesterol measurement we should be looking at).
To calculate this ratio, divide your total cholesterol number by your HDL cholesterol number. So if your total cholesterol is 200 mg/dL and your HDL is 50 mg/dL, your ratio would be 4:1. Higher ratios mean a higher risk of heart disease.
- Coconut oil significantly increases HDL cholesterol. (Not LDL, despite all of these claims that saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol.)
This is GOOD because studies show that the strongest independent risk factor for coronary artery disease is low HDL (higher risk of heart attack and stroke), so we want to increase our HDL number + coconut oil has been shown to do that.
- Countries with a high intake of coconut oil have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. However, it’s important to remember that there are many other factors at play that likely contribute to this lower rate of heart disease.
The evidence simply does NOT support guidelines to restrict saturated fats in order to prevent heart disease. There is also a lack of evidence that a high consumption of polyunsaturated fats reduces the risk of heart disease.
So, YES coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat. BUT more and more research is showing that all these scary claims that link saturated fat to heart disease and cholesterol issues, may not be true after all. Therefore, just because coconut oil is high in saturated fat, doesn’t mean it isn’t heart-healthy.
2. Is coconut oil good for oral health? What is oil pulling anyway?
Oil pulling is an ancient Ayurvedic practice to maintain oral hygiene. Prior to eating breakfast in the morning, a tablespoon of oil is swished in the mouth (like mouthwash). iiiinteresting, right?
Now, let’s look at the research…
- Lauric acid is the most abundant fatty acid in coconut oil. Research shows that it is effective in preventing tooth decay and plaque buildup.
- A study of 60 adolescents with plaque induced gingivitis demonstrated that oil pulling with coconut oil is helpful in decreasing plaque formation and plaque induced gingivitis (the study showed a 50% decrease in gingival and plaque indicators after just four weeks!). THAT’S COOL.
- Another study demonstrated that oil pulling for 15-20 minutes for 45 days resulted in a statistically significant decrease in plaque, gingival scores, and bacterial counts. All of these scores increased after 45 days in the 20 individuals in the control group who practiced routine oral hygiene practices. UM, THAT’S COOL TOO.
Some claim that oil pulling has a cleansing and detoxifying effect on the entire body. I couldn’t find much research to back this up…
But research does show that coconut oil may be a healthy addition to your oral hygiene routine, particularly when it comes to decreasing plaque! I was definitely a skeptic before digging into the research, and now I’m convinced it truly is helpful.
3. Is coconut oil good for my hair?
I’ve seen sooo many claims on Pinterest that coconut oil will make your hair grow. I don’t know about you, but I just have not been interested in sitting with coconut oil, honey, and egg on my head for thirty minutes… But let’s see if these claims are backed by any science.
- One study compared mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil in preventing hair damage. Coconut oil did actually significantly reduce hair protein loss when used pre-wash and post-wash as a grooming product. Both sunflower and mineral oils did not help at all in reducing the protein loss from hair.
Hair protein loss is common among people that frequently use heat on their hair, so coconut oil could be a good way to strengthen your hair.
- In terms of hair growth, there is very little evidence to support the claim that coconut oil is effective in helping hair grow faster or in preventing hair loss.
Basically, if you use heat on your hair, adding a coconut based product to your hair care regimen seems worth it!
4. Is coconut oil good for my skin?
- One study showed that wounds treated with coconut oil healed faster than wounds not treated with coconut oil. However, this study was not on humans, sooooo I’d say we need more research on that one…
- Another study demonstrated that coconut oil is about equally as effective (if not more so) and just as safe as mineral oil when used as a moisturizer. It can help keep your skin hydrated, especially on dry areas of the body, like elbows and knees.
- In terms of using coconut oil as a face moisturizer, be careful. It is the opposite (!!) of a non-comedogenic product (that little label we all look for on skin care products). According to an esthetician, coconut oil is a four on a one-to-five comedogenic scale. So if you’re prone to clogged pores, you’ll want to stay away from coconut oil as a face moisturizer.
- In a randomized controlled trial, coconut oil cleared 95% of staphyoloccal colonization in patients with atopic dermatitis. This is impressive, especially given the increasing concern with bacterial resistance. So coconut oil shows some promise in the medical skin care realm.
The bottom line
- Coconut oil INCREASES our GOOD cholesterol. And saturated fat may not be the enemy we have all been led to believe over the years. (Coconut oil is ~90% saturated fat.)
Therefore, I personally won’t fear coconut oil because of its high saturated fat content. And I no longer believe the claims that simply because coconut oil is high in saturated fat it isn’t heart-healthy. There is too much evidence that says otherwise.
However, I will continue to balance it with other cooking fats, like olive oil. Aka I won’t ONLY be using coconut oil while cooking. More research needs to be done, and I think balance is always best.
- If you have plaque buildup on your teeth, start oil pulling with coconut oil! The research is good.
- If you use a lot of heat on your hair, adding a coconut oil-based product to your hair care regimen is not a bad idea.
- I personally am going to steer clear of using coconut oil as a face moisturizer because I am prone to clogged pores. However, I’m going to try moisturizing dry areas of my body like elbows and knees, with this coconut oil that I already have on hand.
- There are a lot of coconut oil varieties out there — stick to the organic, cold-pressed, and unrefined ones. (Unrefined = virgin.) The most nutrients are retained when coconut oil is cold-pressed and unrefined.
The bottom, bottom line
Coconut oil IS healthy + has been proven effective for several things, but it isn’t the magic fix for everything. More research needs to be done (pretty much like always, lol).
In the meantime, I very frequently use coconut oil when I bake + cook. I probably don’t have the patience for oil pulling, but I’d try it if my dentist told me I have a lot of plaque. I’m all about coconut oil-based hair products used for strengthening hair. And I might try it as a moisturizer on dry skin (but not on my face).
Here are a couple coconut oil products I’m loooving
Coconut Oil Leave-In Conditioner: I use this ultra-affordable, but top of the line leave-in hair treatment to prevent protein loss + strengthen my hair. Not to mention, it smells amazing and leaves your hair feeling silky n soft.
Organic, cold-pressed, unrefined coconut oil: I get this gigantic tub of coconut oil from Costco, but you can snag it on Amazon — I didn’t know this before I started buying this years ago, but y’all… HUNDREDS of FIVE-STAR REVIEWS. This stuff is the bees knees. I use it primarily for cooking + baking, and I feel good knowing it is such high quality. Truly THE GOOD STUFF.
Now, I want to hear from you!
How are you using coconut oil to live a healthier lifestyle? What are your fav coconut oil-based products? Leave a comment below!
Great article on coconut oil, very informative!
Did you see any research on consuming coconut milk and If so, which are best?
Thanks you!! Great question — I didn’t see any specifics on coconut milk products/brands, but I will look into it. I’m curious too!