Separating hard facts from the hype—once and for all
You might think I’m late to the party on coconut oil. But the truth is that I never really joined it.
Don’t get me wrong—there are certainly worse oils out there. (Like supposedly “healthy” canola oil, for starters, which has been refined, heated, and damaged beyond repair.) In fact, coconut oil possesses several compounds that are incredibly good for your health.
But its outsized reputation as a natural panacea in recent years always rubbed me the wrong way. To be honest, I wasn’t surprised to see that consumer enthusiasm seems to be waning. (Coconut oil sales dropped by more than 25 percent in 20171—ouch!)
Part of that might be due to recent attacks from the American Heart Association (AHA). Of course, the AHA wouldn’t know good nutrition even if it fell out of a palm tree and hit them on top of the head.
But despite these mainstream misgivings, there are still a whole lot of people out there who believe coconut oil is the best oil there is.
As for me, I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle. I also think you have better options when it comes to getting the most bang for your buck, in terms of both versatility and health benefits.
But in the interest of fairness, let’s start with a couple of good points about coconut oil and its components…
Boost metabolism and immunity with MCTs
One reason to like coconut oil: Lauric acid accounts for roughly half of its fatty acid content.
Lauric acid is a medium-chain triglyceride (MCT)—and interestingly, coconut and human breast milk are two of the only natural sources. Needless to say, it delivers a few significant benefits.
For one thing, unlike more common long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs), most of the lauric acid you ingest will go straight to your liver to be converted into energy. As a result, it’s less likely to turn into body fat. And, in fact, clinical research suggests that increasing MCT intake can actively contribute to weight loss.2
There are other benefits, too. Lauric acid and its derivative, monolaurin, have both shown significant activity against a number of harmful bacteria, fungi, and viruses.3 (In fact, many commercial products use these compounds as antimicrobial agents.)
It goes without saying that the majority of the benefits coconut oil carries trace directly back to its abundant MCT content. And the available literature runs the gamut—suggesting anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and pain-relieving properties. Not to mention cardiovascular benefits, too.
Unfortunately though, a lot of the support for these claims comes from animal research—which isn’t exactly worthless, but definitely of limited value.
However, there’s one application for coconut oil that I find particularly promising. And that’s its role in promoting ketosis.
As you might recall, ketosis is a normal metabolic process that occurs when your body doesn’t have enough glucose (sugar) for energy, so it burns fat stores instead. And when fat is burned as your primary source of energy, your liver produces a build-up of acids—a
by-product called ketones.
Carbohydrate restriction—like you’ll find in my A-list Diet—is one way to facilitate this process, mainly since carbs turn into sugar (glucose) upon digestion. But MCTs can also help your body naturally generate ketones.
This is why coconut oil has taken a starring role in a lot of ketogenic diets. And if you’ve been a reader of mine for a while, then you know that ketogenic diets have their own impressive roster of benefits.
A missing link in the fight against Alzheimer’s
First and foremost, ketogenic diets turn your body into a veritable fat burning machine. Which makes them great for weight loss.
But as I explained last May, they also deliver natural protection against diabetes, cancer, seizures, even depression. And as I mentioned back in January, emerging research points to ketosis as a potential therapy for Alzheimer’s disease, too. (To access these newsletters from my archives, simply log into the Subscribers section of my website, www.DrPescatore.com.)
That’s because Alzheimer’s impedes your brain’s ability to use sugar for energy—dropping glucose metabolism by as much as 40 percent in some areas. This energy loss contributes to both the structural and cognitive dysfunction we associate with dementia.
But early research suggests that your brain can substitute ketones in place of sugar for energy, just like the rest of your body can. So it’s not hard to see how coconut oil—rich in MCTs that ramp up the production of ketones—could improve cognition in Alzheimer’s patients.
And while I haven’t come across much in the way of credible science to back up some of the other health claims about coconut oil, clinical research does support this particular association.
As part of a recent study, researchers examined the effects of extra virgin coconut oil in 31 subjects with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s disease. Subjects consumed 20 grams daily—or about 1 ½ Tbsp—for four weeks.
Results showed that after two weeks, 41 percent of the subjects showed improvement. And by the fourth week, that number more than doubled—with 84 percent of subjects demonstrating significant improvements in cognition and behavior.4
Caregivers noted increases in mood, alertness, easier language expression, and boosts in overall activity. Patients were also more relaxed and cooperative.
The only thing keeping coconut oil out of my kitchen
Now that I’ve explained a few of the reasons behind coconut oil’s recent rise in popularity—and some of the research supporting its benefits—you might be wondering why I’m not an enthusiastic proponent of it…
First, a few basics about oils in general. Myths abound in this department, and people often choose an oil thinking it has fewer calories or less fat than other kinds. But the truth is:
1) All oils have the same amount of calories.
2) All oils have the same amount of fat.
3) The main difference lies in the smoke points and the type of fatty acids within the oils.
An oil’s smoke point is the temperature at which it begins to break down into damaging trans fats. And even an otherwise healthy oil can turn into bonafide heart hazard if you push it past its smoke point in the kitchen.
Coconut oil has a high smoke point of 350° F. That’s why for high heat applications like stir-fries, coconut oil is certainly preferable to so-called “vegetable oil.” In fact, for cooking, it’s even a better choice than olive oil, which has a comparatively low smoke point of 320° F.
However, coconut oil is also almost entirely saturated fat.
I know, I know—I defend saturated fats all the time. And again, I’m not saying that this makes coconut oil unhealthy. There’s indeed a role for saturated fat in your diet—whether it’s from butter, grass-fed meat, or coconut. The only time saturated fat becomes dangerous is when it’s combined with sugar and refined flour to produce all those packaged, processed foods you find in the supermarket snack aisle.
At worst, coconut oil’s a neutral food—and not even remotely the boogeyman the AHA would have you believe. But at the end of the day, it’s not the fat in coconut oil that’s keeping me from jumping on board this train…
It’s the fat that’s missing from coconut oil—namely monounsaturated fats.
That’s why the latest literature hasn’t done much to change my original conclusions on this subject.
Yes, MCTs, and lauric acid in particular, are beneficial. But they’re also available (and in much more concentrated, effective forms) as nutritional supplements.
For everyday cooking oils, you have better options than coconut oil. So let’s revisit those now. And I’ll explain why there’s only ONE kind of oil I keep in my kitchen.
My top oil for everyday use
Like I said, coconut oil is mostly saturated fat—92 percent, in fact. Which means it barely contains any unsaturated fatty acids. This wouldn’t be a problem if we were only talking about omega-6 fatty acids, which are already overabundant in the Western diet.
But this category also includes monounsaturated fatty acids, or MUFAs. And research shows that diets rich in MUFAs can drop fasting blood sugar by as much as 30 points. (That’s enough to kick medication, in some cases.) Studies also show MUFAs can help cut visceral fat by as much as 20 percent. (Visceral fat is the kind that builds around your internal organs and boosts inflammation—in other words, the most dangerous kind.)
And research also suggests that a MUFA-rich Mediterranean diet is the only diet that facilitates long-term weight loss.
So as far as I’m concerned, MUFAs are a must. And in order to get them, you have to look to other sources beyond coconut oil. Like olive oil, which is 72 percent MUFAs. Or avocado oil, which is 65 percent MUFAs.
Both of these are decent options for everyday use, depending on the application. Olive oil should be reserved for cold uses only (as a finishing oil, or in salad dressing) since its smoke point is so low. With a 410°F smoke point, avocado oil can stand up to higher temps, so it’s OK for cooking.
But my personal favorite is macadamia nut oil—which is comprised almost entirely of monounsaturated fatty acids. And it also boasts a sky-high smoke point (520°F).
Plus, MUFAs and smoke point aren’t the only things macadamia nut oil has going for it. It also boasts low levels of omega-6 fats. (Again, Western diets are already packed with omega-6—and this imbalance is one of the main culprits behind runaway inflammation.) And it contains a long list of vital nutrients—including potassium, magnesium, calcium, selenium, vitamin E, niacin, and folic acid.
The bottom line: Coconut oil is good for you—I won’t deny that. But MUFA-rich macadamia nut oil isn’t just better. It’s the best.
What to look for when purchasing cooking oil—of any kind
Whether you decide to opt for macadamia, coconut, or olive oil, there are several questions you should ask before buying:
Where is the oil manufactured?
This matters because you want the ingredients to be grown in their native areas, or areas where climate is similar.
For example, my NuLogic Foods macadamia nut oil comes from East Africa, which has ideal growing conditions for macadamia nuts. This way, I know the very best quality nuts are being used.
How is the oil extracted and processed (is it heated, does it contain added solvents, etc.)?
You want to look for pure, unrefined oil. It should simply be crushed, filtered, and bottled. There shouldn’t be any degumming, deodorizing, or bleaching.
This gentle process preserves the nutrients in the oil—the fatty-acid content, antioxidants, and minerals.
Have herbicides or pesticides (or any chemical for that matter) been used to produce the source crop?
As I’ve written about many times before, over 93% of soybeans in this country are genetically modified to resist pesticides. And that means that whatever chemicals used to kill pests and weeds eventually make their way into your food, and into your body. So avoid soybean oil, corn oil, and canola oil at all costs.
Look for labeling certifying the oil of your choice as organic, non-GMO, and/or free from pesticides or hexane.
What is the “harvest date” on the bottle?
It should be within the past year. Unfortunately, this may be difficult to find on some brands. More than likely, you’ll see a “sell-by” date, which in most cases is two years after the harvest. But the polyphenol content diminishes drastically after two years. So the further away the “sell-by” date, the better.
You should know that macadamia nut oil may be a little tricky to track down in your local grocery store. Head to my website, www.DrPescatore.com, and use the search bar for more details on my favorite oil.
And if you decide to enjoy a Mediterranean-style diet (where macadamia and olive oils can be used liberally) I hand-picked a ton of delicious recipes you can use these oils with. You can find the full recipes, as well as a 30-day meal plan, in my latest book, The A-List Diet.
In fact, I’m releasing the paperback version this month, for a more portable, convenient way to eat right, feel more energized, and ensure you hit your weight loss goals! For more information, simply visit www.AListDietBook.com.
- Watson, Elaine. “Has coconut oil lost its luster? New data from SPINS shows sharp sales declines in 2017.” 16 Feb 2018. Foodnavigator-usa.com.
- Mumme K, et al. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015 Feb;115(2):249-63.
- Dayrit, F.M. J Am Oil Chem Soc (2015) 92: 1.
- Gandotra S, et al. Int J Sch Cog Psychol 2:108.