The Truth about Coconut Oil

I’ve been looking back at my blog in 2013 and thinking about what I want to change or do differently and it occurred to me that I haven’t really been writing about life. My blog’s motto is, after all, “food, travel, life.” So I’ve decided to change that and write about things affecting my life or my friends’ lives and life in Switzerland.

The Truth About Coconut Oil

My first post is about coconut oil. It seems like everybody everywhere has been saying how great coconut oil is, how it will cure [insert medical condition or disease here], and how awesome it is as a beauty product. Fox News has an article listing coconut oil as one of the oils which can improve your health if you consume it (source) and the Today Show had a segment on “5 Best Skin Foods: Eat Your Way to Beautiful” where they claim coconut oil may speed up your metabolism (source). But its not just news articles, but also famous celebrities like Dr. Oz.

You can also easily find a multitude of pins on Pinterest claiming coconut oil can: help with weight loss, boost immunity, improve heart health, fight infections, aid digestion, and practically cure diabetes.

My big question about all of this was “Is any of this true?”!

Can Coconut Oil Cure Diseases and Help with Weight-Loss?

I started my search for the truth with Web MD and this article.

There is very limited evidence on disease outcomes, says Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health. “All that has been studied well is the impact of coconut oil on cholesterol levels and the findings are intriguing but we still don’t know if it is harmful or beneficial,” Mozaffarian says. (source)

Neither the American Heart Association (AHA) nor the U.S. government’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines suggest that coconut oil is any better or preferable over other saturated fats. Coconut oil, like all saturated fats, should be limited to 7%-10% of calories because it can increase risk for heart disease, according to the AHA and 2010 Dietary Guidelines. (source)

“Coconut oil is better than butter and trans fats but not as good as liquid vegetable oils,” says Penn State University cardiovascular nutrition researcher Penny Kris-Etherton, PhD, RD. (source)

“But even though coconut oil is cholesterol-free, it is still a saturated fat that needs to be limited in the diet and if you are looking for real health benefits, switch from saturated fats to unsaturated fats by using vegetable oils like soybean, canola, corn, or olive oil,” says Kris-Etherton, a member of the 2005 Dietary Guidelines advisory committee and Institute of Medicine’s panel on dietary reference intakes for macronutrients (which include fats). (source)

Next, I did some more googling at the New York Times and found this article in the dining section.

 “I think we in the nutrition field are beginning to say that saturated fats are not so bad, and the evidence that said they were is not so strong,” Dr. Thomas Brenna, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, said. (source)

[Marisa Moore, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, a nonprofit association of nutritionists, said] that while it is still uncertain whether coconut oil is actively beneficial the way olive oil is, small amounts probably are not harmful. The new federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10 percent of total dietary calories a day come from saturated fat. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 20 grams. (source)

I also found that there is insufficient evidence to support claims that coconut oil can cure the following: head lice, psoriasis, heart disease, obesity, high cholesterol, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, chronic fatigue, Chron’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, thyroid conditions, and AIDS/HIV. (WebMD, Discovery Health)

So what does all that mean? There is NO CLINICAL EVIDENCE that coconut oil can cure diseases or that it has any of the medical benefits people claim.  While there did seem to be some promising research, more research is still needed to make a determination. However, its still better for you than butter, even if it does have the same fat content! So by all means, use it as a butter substitute in baking, but don’t use it in place of olive oil. Coconut oil is an especially great butter substitute for those who are vegetarian or dairy-free. But its probably not such a great idea to eat it by the spoonful everyday like some people say you should- that’s essentially just as bad for your health as eating a spoonful of butter every day!

But, what about all those beauty uses?

Can it really make your hair shinier? Or make your skin softer? Or cure your baby’s diaper rash, your acne, or your eczema?

I haven’t been able to find many studies on the real effectiveness of coconut oil in many of the beauty applications people are claiming. However, I have found lots of reputable sources touting coconut oil as a moisturizing and repairing hair treatment (WebMD 1, WebMD 2), though its generally suggested more for dry hair rather than normal or oily hair.

What about using coconut oil as a moisturizer?

Most experts tend to agree that it does indeed work well as a moisturizer, but its best for those with dry or mature skin because those skin types need oil-based moisturizers rather than water-based moisturizers (MayoClinic 1) It also works well as a moisturizing lip balm. The Mayo Clinic recommends using plain lip balm with petrolatum, beeswax or an oil-based lubricating cream (source) and coconut oil certainly qualifies. Coconut oil’s moisturizing qualities are probably the same reason many moms say it cured their baby’s diaper rash.

But what about using coconut oil to cure your eczema?

I was particularly interested in this one since I have eczema. According to the Mayo Clinic, there is no conclusive evidence that alternative therapies can cure eczema (source). (There is one promising study in this area, but more research is needed.) However, the treatment of eczema involves medications prescribed by your doctor and being careful to keep your skin moisturized and hydrated.  In fact, the Mayo Clinic does recommend applying an oil to your skin as part of your moisturizing routine if you have eczema (source). So, for those with dry skin who use coconut oil as a moisturizer in conjunction with the medications prescribed by their doctor, it probably does help in the prevention of future flare-ups.

And what about using coconut oil to cure acne?

This one is a bit more complicated because there are so many different causes of acne. Acne occurs when your hair follicles get plugged up with oil and dead skin (source), but it can be caused or worsened by hormones, medications, diet, scrubbing your skin too hard, washing with harsh soaps or chemicals, build-up of bacteria, overproduction of oil, irritation of hair follicles, and even allergies (WebMd, Mayo Clinic, Livestrong). All of this information was really helpful because I know a lot of people who immediately jump to harsh scrubbing and chemicals to get rid of acne, which can actually make it worse. But what about coconut oil? The Mayo Clinic does have this list of alternative treatments for acne which are backed by some studies, but I didn’t see coconut oil on the list. WebMD  had something to say on the subject of coconut oil and acne, but its not good news: it can actually cause acne (source)! So if you’re using coconut oil as a moisturizer, be careful not to use too much or you may end up with acne.

Here is some more reading for you  if you’re curious:


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19 thoughts on “The Truth about Coconut Oil

  1. I started using coconut oil on my 3 year old daughter because I heard it was good for chicken skin. I am glad I did because it did seem to help, but also was better to use since she would have some on her face and I didn’t have to worry about her getting any in her mouth like I would with regular moisturizer.

    • Thanks for stopping by. I completely agree from my own experience and from the research that its a great moisturizer. Plus, I’d definitely rather use something that’s ok to eat instead of something that isn’t, especially for a child! I’m glad it helped your daughter.

  2. All I know is that it works great to treat my baby’s diaper rash and when mixed with baking soda makes a might fine chem-free deodorant. Thanks for sharing the insights, Caroline.

    • Hi Jelli, thanks so much for stopping by and sharing your experience with coconut oil. As I mentioned in my post, its hard to find real scientific research about the beauty uses of coconut oil! Its great to hear from you how you use it. My main concern with coconut oil was all the health claims people were making, but it seems most of the beauty claims are true.

  3. Thanks for some great research & a great post! Do you mind if I link to it on my blog’s links page?

    I have been troubled by the recent coconut oil craze – most of us (myself included) don’t need to supplement our saturated fat intake. Yet I see recipes all over the internet that claim to be healthy, but have HUGE quantities of coconut oil in them.

    • Anna, I’m so glad you liked the post. I’m flattered you want to link to it, so please do! I agree that its frustrating to see all these “healthy” recipes but really they’re loaded with fat!

  4. I’ve read your article, and I do have to disagree with the sources that you quoted. Web MD is all about promoting prescription drugs..
    I have fed my dog coconut oil for his itchy skin in the winter, 2 days after starting the regime, he is better. I have the softest winter hands thanks to coconut oil. I hope that you will look at alternative websites like naturalnews.com and other natural sources than just the lame stream sites that spew mis-information.
    http://www.naturalnews.com/040903_coconut_oil_healthy_fats_oils.html
    As far as internally, I have read many positive things about coconut oil, from making people feel better with thyroid problems, blood pressure and many more. Our bodies need fats, animal fats (real butter) and coconut oil is great too!
    http://www.thehealthyhomeeconomist.com/five-fats-you-must-have-in-your-kitchen/
    Please take the time to research other avenues before telling your readers that coconut oil is not good for them. If that’s the case, I bet you believe that flu shots are good for you as well!

    • Hi Rachel, thank you for taking the time to read my post and sharing your opinion. I wanted to first say that I agree coconut oil is a great moisturizer when applied topically. In fact, my post and all the sources I have quoted agree. Its definitely a life-saver in the dry winter months for my skin! I also use it topically for my hair as a deep conditioning treatment and in my home-made sugar scrub.

      I agree that WebMD is very main stream and can be about promoting prescription drugs. I personally prefer to manage diseases and conditions by other means if its possible since diet and exercise can solve a lot of medical problems, but I am not against prescription drugs. I have listed several resources other than Wedb MD throughout the post and at the bottom, such as the Mayo Clinic, Harvard Health, and NYU Langone. My aim was to find sources which were either peer reviewed or based on the opinion of PhDs (whether medical or research) who have read the peer reviewed articles.

      I did read the articles you shared with me. I agree that coconut oil is better for you than butter because of the molecular structure and its great to use as a butter substitute, but not as a replacement for olive oil. The sources I have quoted agree with this opinion. It is the molecular composition of coconut oil and using it as a butter substitute in conjunction with a heart-healthy diet which can enable it to lower your cholesterol, but only in the same way that olive oil can, not by eating a spoonful or extra coconut oil every day. Its a bit of a misnomer to say that anything (other than medication) lowers your cholesterol when its really your diet and exercise regime that do the work.

      With regards to weight-loss, coconut oil can help remove inches from your waist, but not help you achieve meaningful weight-loss (i.e. it does not help to lower BMI). This is a very subtle distinction. From the sources I have quoted and other peer reviewed sources I have read, the opinions in the article you quoted about coconut oil curing diseases and HIV are just not true. There may be some promising studies in some disease areas, but they are very early studies and the current scientific understanding says that you should not eat “extra” coconut oil every day since eating extra fat is generally bad for your health, especially your heart health. Yes, our bodies do need fats, but there are some fats which are better for you than others due to their molecular and chemical makeup and I do not advocate cutting out fat all together (nor do the sources I quoted). I personally use a combination of real butter and olive oil when cooking in the kitchen.

  5. Hi Caroline. I’m stopping in from Let’s Get Real today. Your article caught my attention right away. My father and I like to keep track on what people say about cocounit oil. He is fighting cancer right now and he is doing this with nutrition. There will likely come the day where he has to go through chemo, but until then he is fighting with food. We have found that many of the cocounut oil studies done in the last 20 years were done with hydrogenated coconut oil. You should avoid all hydrogenated oils. I try to avoid all refined oils corn oil, vegetable oil, etc as they are likely made from geneticially modified corn. The three oils I use on a regular basis are organic butter, olive oil, and cocounut oil………..all as part of an overall low-fat diet. I always encourage my readers to do their own research. I LOVE that you have done that. We each need to be comfortable with what we feed our families. I really believe we all do the best we can. And you are right………..It is so good on my hands. I like to cook with it and then rub a little into my oh-so-dry hands. Does it cure everything? Certainly not! I am taking a nutrition class from Vanderbilt University and my professor said that nutrition is based on science and science is always changing. The food debate is just so interesting, isn’t it?

    • Hi Christina, thanks for visiting from the link party. I’m sorry to hear your father is fighting cancer and I hope he is able to put it into remission! I also use butter and olive oil as my only fats and after doing all the research for this article, I may add in coconut oil to some of my baking. And I completely get what your professor is saying about science always changing and in my mind, that’s kind of the point of science: to make a guess, test it out, then learn from that.

  6. Hi there, I’m a fellow American blogger living in Switzerland, as well. I’m in Basel. I really appreciated this article because I had some of the same reservations about all of the crazy health claims being made about it. I use it but I’m not ingesting it by the cup every day like many people are. I will disagree with you on butter being unhealthy, though 🙂 My blog is http://www.thenaturalsinger.com. It’s nice to ‘meet’ another blogger in Switzerland. Take care.

    • Its great to “meet” a fellow American blogger in Switzerland! We haven’t been to Basel yet, but its on the list. With regards to butter, the research says that strictly from a cholesterol perspective, coconut oil is better than butter. However, I haven’t personally researched other benefits of butter as I cannot typically eat butter substitutes due to food allergies so I’ve always just used real butter and made. I’ll definitely visit your blog!

  7. Cool! When you come to Basel, let me know 🙂 There’s a lot of new research regarding heart disease and cholesterol. Most of it flies in the face of what we’ve been previously taught for the last 30 years or so. It might be interesting to you.

    Hope to meet you in person someday!

    Regards,
    Susan

  8. Nearly all of the research done on coconut oil has been hydrogenated coconut oil. We shouldn’t consume anything hydrogenated. Coconut oil has antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties which is probably why it helps clear skin. Coconut oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil and is a better choice for cooking at higher temperatures. Once upon a time they said eggs were bad for us and now they are saying eggs are fine. The only truly accurate study is the one you conduct on yourself. If it works for you and improves your health then use it.

    • Hi Bonnie, thank you for stopping by. I agree that a lot of the research on coconut oil has been done on hydrogenated coconut oil, however many of the articles I cite are based upon newer research not using hydrogenated oil. Scientists have started to learn their lesson there and are starting to use non-hydrogenated oil in their research. And yes it does have all the properties you mentioned, however it can still cause acne, but I personally think this really depends on your skin and how much you use. I agree that science is always changing!

  9. I think it is great that you did your own research and then came to your own conclusions. I feel like more people need to do that.

    I have to admit that I am a big proponent for coconut oil. So I did want to point out 2 things.
    1. Weight-loss – there are numerous studies that have shown that medium-chain triglycerides can help (not cure) with weight loss. Coconut oil is very high in these.
    2. Skin issues – Coconut oil can be very drying for some. Although it seems strange as it is an oil, it has drying properties and seems to pull oil out of the skin. This is why it is often used in soap making. I have not yet found why it is. I have been researching and cannot find the reason why it is drying, but I wanted to let you and your readers know that they might experience this. I experienced this after trying CO on my face.

    • Hi Suzy, thanks for stopping by. I am very interested to hear more about the weight-loss studies you mentioned. The ones I found said that while it did help you lose inches from your waist, it did not help reduce BMI. But, I guess if your BMI is healthy and you just want to lose inches, go for it!

      Also, I didn’t see the potential drying effect of coconut oil mentioned in the research I found, but that’s very interesting! Personally, I have found it to help my skin, but I do use it in combination with a special moisturizer prescribed by my doctor and the addition of coconut oil makes all the difference for me.

  10. Greetings Caroline!

    I so appreciate your interest in learning more about coconut oil and its perceived benefits. Unfortunately, soybean and canola oil are not better choices than coconut oil as your sources suggested. Most of those are GMO and processed in such a way that you would be better off cooking with motor oil. I know that seems like a rash statement. But…it’s truth. I’d like to encourage you to do more research on oils and fats of all kinds. Believe me, I have been reading about this topic for a few years and I still have more to learn…but…this I do know…..you have only scratched the surface of oils and fats….and a lot of what you have learned, so far, is inaccurate. I know…these seem like reputable sources….but believe me….when it comes to nutrition and natural healing….they come up short.

    Contrary to what you have read…a spoonful of butter is beneficial not harmful…especially if you can purchase butter that comes from grass fed/pastured cows. Keep in mind that there are other important nutrients that we receive in the butter which is part of the value of it for us. If you live in Switzerland, you have access to higher quality fresh foods than we do in the US. The standards are higher there also. Yay for Europe.

    All of this may seem a bit harsh….
    Nutrition and health have been a hobby of mine for years and I simply want to encourage you to keep on learning and discovering and to go beyond conventional thought….which is often funded by Agribusiness and the pharmaceutical industry.

    If you want more resources to check out…please let me know….I’d love to “chat.”

    Here’s to good health!! And good coconut oil and butter! 😉

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