The tropical coconut tree, native to tropical climates the world over, has been a diet staple in equatorial areas for hundreds of years. In fact, many of these cultures – especially those in South Asia – get most of their dietary saturated fat from coconut oil. This includes nations such as the Philippines, Indonesia, and India. The reason coconut oil is so prevalent, aside from its availability, is its usefulness in cooking. Because coconut oil is very stable under high temperatures, it is perfect for the purposes of frying. Additionally, this high stability helps coconut oil to keep fresh for a longer duration than other oils.
In the West, coconut oil isn’t typically seen as a health food. It has a high concentration of saturated fat, which has been linked to increased LDL (or “bad cholesterol”) levels and an increased risk for heart disease. As a result, the governments of many countries have in fact warned their citizens against consuming too much of it. But, in the realm of nutrition, there are often trade-offs that one wouldn’t necessarily suspect. A respectable amount of medical evidence points to certain health benefits of coconut oil when consumed in moderation.
Coconut Oil Might Be a Better Saturated Fat Choice Than Other Oils
It’s undeniable that just about any oil stable enough to use for frying is high in saturated fat. And while the intake of this substance should definitely be limited, medical studies indicate that not all saturated fat is necessarily created equal. Different oils, it seems, may have different effects on the body when consumed. In testing performed in 2009, women with “abdominal obesity” were observed. One group was given a diet that included a 30mL serving of soybean oil (another popular frying oil), while the other was given the same diet with a 30mL serving of coconut oil. The women whose diets were supplemented with soybean oil saw an increase in LDL (bad cholesterol) and a decrease in HDL (good cholesterol) despite a steady diet and 50 minutes of light exercise daily. The women who ingested coconut oil did not experience these same negative effects on cholesterol. The conclusion, albeit preliminary, seems to suggest that coconut oil may not have the same drawbacks as other dietary forms of saturated fats. In fact, the researchers concluded that coconut oil may actually help in the fight against obesity.
It is important to note that coconut oil, in this study, was compared only to other sources of saturated fat. Healthier oils, such as olive oil, contain mostly unsaturated fat – which is without a doubt safer to consume in moderate amounts. The role of coconut oil in cholesterol and fat reduction is solely seen as a supplemental saturated fat source, which should be restricted in a healthy diet. So, while coconut oil is good as a substitute for things fried, for instance, in soybean oil, it should not be used in place of unsaturated fats.
Non-Dietary Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
The stability of coconut oil and its resistance to turning rancid isn’t just effective for storage purposes. A well-known health benefit of this coconut oil property is that it can be used topically as a treatment for certain skin conditions. Lipids, because they repel water (or are hydrophobic) can effectively seal in moisture in the skin. Therefore, conditions whose symptoms include excessively dry skin might actually be soothed with the occasional application of coconut oil.
A 2004 medical study was conducted on the skin condition Xerosis, which is identified by scaly skin, severe itchiness, and excessive dryness. In the study, coconut oil was used as a treatment with surprisingly effective results. Test subjects with the condition were directed to use coconut oil on affected areas for a two week period. At the end of the two weeks, effects including an increase in skin moisture content and better skin lipid levels were observed. In addition, none of the subjects experienced any adverse side-effects from the application of coconut oil. Though the study was limited (there were only 34 subjects) the sample did seem to indicate that there are legitimate health benefits of coconut oil when applied on dry skin.
In more cosmetic terms, these effects of coconut oil application also may prove useful for hair care. In situations where one is experiencing dry scalp, dry hair, and dandruff, the use of coconut oil to treat hair after washing may increase overall moisture retention, which in turn keeps the hair and scalp healthier. With the uptick in popularity of more natural personal care products, one can simply look at the labels of shampoo and hair care products to see if coconut oil is included in their ingredients list.
Coconut Oil and Lauric Acid
In cultures where coconut oil is harvested and consumed at relatively high rates, it is appreciated for its pathogen fighting properties. The most widely accepted explanation for this is the oil’s high concentration of lauric acid. Chemically, it is a fatty acid that has both antibacterial and antiviral properties, which works in the body when consumed. While its consumption won’t necessarily cure a bacterial or viral infection, it is generally that lauric acid can help the immune system in working against the growth, multiplication, and spread of these pathogens. As previously mentioned, it is essential to remember coconut oil’s high saturated fat content. When sick, coconut oil is useful is small amounts, and should never be consumed liberally in any situation.
Despite its reputation for “bad” fats, coconut oil, when consumed in moderation, does actually have some significant health benefits. Though no saturated fat sources are particularly beneficial to the cardiovascular system, it seems that coconut oil is the lesser of the many evils when considering substances used to fry food. Even outside of the kitchen, this tropical plant’s oil can be quite useful to those suffering from conditions that involve dry skin. So, before writing off coconut oil as wholly unhealthy and terrible for consumption, consider the health benefits it does have to offer. You might be surprised at just how advantageous its use, in moderation, can be.