Is Coconut Oil the New Snake Oil? --- A
Look Behind the Health Claims
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October  17,  2015

By Susan Callahan, Associate Editor and Featured Columnist








You may have noticed a giant whooshing sound coming from
your neighborhood health food store created by waves of
shoppers rushing through the doors to buy bottles of  coconut
oil.


Sales of coconut oil in the US and Europe are exploding,
growing 70% year over year, according to industry data
provider, SPINS.  In the UK, Whole Foods has seen its sales of
coconut oil double from 2014 to 2015.  Stores on both sides of
the Atlantic are in bliss, with many reporting that they are
unable to keep up with demand.


The coconut oil rush has all the classic signs of a mania ---
demand pumped up as neighbors tell neighbors, friends tell
friends or the magical properties of coconut oil. Celebrity
models and designers --- Gwyneth Paltrow, Stella McCarthy,
Emma Stone among others --- are huge fans.


Coconut oil is being touted as a cure-all for wide range of
illnesses, from diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease,
obesity, skin conditions, to name a few.  But is it all true? Is
coconut oil the long lost superfood of our dreams, the
nutritional missing link that can turn our collectively disastrous
health profiles in the right direction? Or is coconut oil simply
the last in a long line of mystical, magical” cures hawked by this
generation’s version of snake oil salesmen?


From Coconut Road to Your Kitchen


Coconut oil is produced from the flesh of the palm of the
coconut, technically known as “Cocos nucifera” in the humid
tropical climates of the trees need to survive.  The region
where coconuts thrive stretches from Sri Lanka and Indonesia
to the Philipines and parts of the Caribbean.


A single coconut palm tree can live for up to 100 years and
produces between 70-150 coconuts per year, according to the
United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.


Typically, the coconut palm tree does not require much fertilizer
and often salt water is the only fertilizer used.  For those
occasions when fertilizer is needed, farmers rely on   Nitrogen,
K2O, Chlorine and  Sulphur. Ripe coconuts fall from the tall,
palm trees and are harvested on the ground, split open by a
machete to expose the white flesh and left open in the sun for
2 to 3 days to dry. Oil is pressed from the dried flesh of the
coconut.




The Proven and Unproven Health Benefits of Coconut Oil




























Coconut oil, and all oils, contain chains of triglycerides.
Triglycerides are an oily substance produced from excess
calories your body does not burn up through exercise or
involuntary activities such as breathing. Many studies and
health authorities have found that having triglyceride levels
over 150 mg/dl (1.7 millimoles per liter) raises your risk for
heart disease.


There are two  types of triglycerides found in coconuts, long-
chain triglycerides and medium chain triglycerides. Long chain
triglycerides are also found in heart-healthy oils such as olive
oil.


What makes coconut oil different is that it contains a much
higher percentage of medium chain triglycerides. In fact, other
than palm oil, coconut oil contains a higher percentage (55%)
of medium chain triglyceride than any other food.



These two facts --- that high triglyceride levels raise your heart
disease risk and that coconut oil contains two types of
triglycerides --- are agreed to by all scientists and are beyond
dispute.


But almost every other health claim about coconut oil is in
dispute.


Does Coconut Oil Really Help You Lose Weight?


Numerous studies using various lab animals have linked diets
rich in medium chain triglycerides such as coconut oil with
weight loss.  


But one of the first human studies was conducted in Japan in
2001.  In that study, a team of researchers led by Hiroaki Tsuji
of Japan’s Kagawa Nutrition University  examined 86 men and
15 women all of whom had health body weights (BMI  less
than or equal to 23). The study subjects were 86 men and 15
women ranging in age from 20 to 58 years of age with an
average body mass index of 24.7 kg/m.


The participants were randomly assigned to one of two groups,
either a group that ate a breakfasts with  long term chain
triglycerides ( 10 mg of Common

edible oil, blended rapeseed oil and soybean oil) or medium
chain triglycerides (10 mg of an unspecified  commercially-
obtained oil). In both breakfasts, the oil was included in the
preparation of bread. The total amount of calories each
participant ate was carefully controlled. Alcohol was limited to
25 ml or less each day.


The study lasted 12 weeks. After 8 weeks, the total body fat of
the group consuming medium chain triglycerides decresed by
3.86 kilograms ( 8.5 pounds) and the group which ate long
chain triglycerides decreased by 2.75 kg ( 6 pounds).


The takeaway from this study often is the headline that medium
chain triglycerides cause more weight loss than long chain
triglycerides. The study was well designed and controlled, and
thus can be deemed reliable evidence for the conclusion that
medium chain triglycerides help more than long chain
triglycerides in weight loss under certain circumstances. What
are these circumstances?


First, on average the participants were already at a healthy
weight,  24 BMI.  Only 39.3% of men in the US have a healthy
BMI (under 25), according to the Centers for Disease Control,
using data from 1984 to 1994. A further 39.9% have BMI
between 25 and 29 (overweight) and 19% are obese (BMI
over 30).  For women, only 45.9% are at a healthy BMI,
25.7% are overweight (BMI between) and 25.5% are obese.  


But although the study’s participants were on average at a
healthier weight than Americans, the difference does not
undermine the strength of the study’s conclusions. Why?
Because the participants in the study who were a bit heavier
actually lost more weight than those who were right at the
healthy BMI or less.


The second distinction, however,  may in fact make a
“difference.  The participants did not overeat during the study
from Japan. Both groups ate meals which were carefully
controlled in terms of calories. If you ate a diet carefully
controlled  for calories and were made to stick to it for 12
weeks, you too would in all likelihood lose weight, regardless
of whether you added a bit of coconut oil or not.  In real life,
and in the United States, people do not tend to carefully control
calories or portion sizes.


In fact, though the study’s results seemed to favor medium
term triglycerides as the “winner” in the contest for weight loss
accelerants, something else catches my attention.  The group
which added the 10 mg of long chain triglycerides also lost a
considerable amount of weight -- 6 pounds over 12 weeks.
Carried out over the course of a year, that rate of weight loss
would equal 25 pounds.


Perhaps the more important conclusion to draw is that adding a
controlled amount of certain triglycerides to your breakfast
encourages weight loss.  The study did not speculate as to why
both groups lost weight by adding 10 mg of oil to their diets
but different studies have suggested that adding oil to a meal
helps to slow digestion, which tends to extend the amount of  
time between meals.  


In fact, a 2015 study has found that adding heart-healthy oils
works as well as if not better than coconut oil.  This study,
from the Institute for Nutrition and Psychology at Göttingen
University Medical School in Germany, tested a modified
Mediterranean diet including walnuts, walnut oil and butter-
flavored canola oil over 12 weeks. At the end of 12 weeks, the
participants lost even more weight than those following  the
medium chain triglyceride diet in Japan --  5. 2 kg (11.44
pounds ) in 12 weeks.


How do we translate these results into useful tips?  First,
calories count, so you have to control portions and total fat
calories.  Adding oil to meals also, of course, adds calories. One
tablespoon of coconut oil contains 117 calories, according to
the US department of Agriculture and one tablespoon of olive
oil, a long chain triglyceride, contains an almost identical 119
calories. A handful of walnuts contains (14 halves) contains
190 calories. If you can limit yourself to 12 halves, that would
be 162 calories. The second tip, then, is to add a handful of
walnuts to your diet each day. Walnuts add walnut oil, which
unlike coconut oil, is indisputably healthy for your heart.



Does Coconut Oil Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease?


Heart disease is common among people who eat Western diets
-- plenty of meat, lower intakes of vegetables and fruits and
lower in many other countries which follow Mediterranean or
traditional diets that are lower in meats and higher in plant-
source foods.  


Heart disease in fact has been the leading cause of death in the
United States for 114 of the past 115 years, according to the
Centers for Disease Control. The only exception was 1918, the
year of the world-wide Spanish flu pandemic which killed up to
100 million people.


Saturated fat from animal meats is often cited as the reason for
the high rates of heart disease in countries such as the US.  But
coconut oil is quite high in saturated fat. Coconut oil contains
more saturated fat, on a percentage basis, than butter.


To test whether lauric acid, the saturated fat found in coconut
oil, raises your risk for heart disease, scientists have looked at
populations which eat a diet high in coconut oil such as
Indonesians.


Indonesians produces 34.9% of the world’s coconuts,
according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and
Development.  Indonesians also consume more coconut oil by
person than any other country on earth except the Philippines.  
In 2004, scientists from  the Faculty of Medicine, Andalas
University, Padang,West Sumatra, Indonesia  conducted a
study of 282 people, 93 of whom had coronary disease and
189 people whose hearts were healthy.


The study closely compared the diets of  two groups. What
they found was that the total amount of fat, cholesterol, and
coconut flesh or coconut milk did not differ significantly
between the group that had heart disease and the group with
healthy hearts.  


The biggest difference between the two groups?  The group
with heart disease ate more meat.  


Thus it appears that  coconuts --- whether the flesh of the
coconut or the milk of coconut --- do not raise your risk for
heart disease, even though coconuts contain saturated fat.


It’s not the saturated fat that matters but the source of the
saturated fat.  Plant-based saturated fat, such as the lauric acid
saturated fat in coconuts,  does not appear to raise the risk for
heart disease.



Does Coconut Oil Lower Your Risk for Diabetes?


The FDA has also shot down any claim that coconut oil lowers
the risk for diabetes.


The Company had claimed that "Coconut oil may lower the risk
of diabetes, heart disease and improve cholesterol levels.
Studies show people who take coconut oil improved their
cholesterol profile along with higher HDL levels and higher HDL:
LDL ratio."


The FDA disagreed, stating that “There are also no health
claims authorized by regulation or the Act that provide for
claims relating coconut oil to diabetes”.


We could find no scientific studies which supported the claim
that coconut oil lowers your risk for diabetes.

How About Alzheimer's and Rheumatism?

There are no scientific studies which have proven that coconut
oil lowers your risk for
Alzheimer's disease or arthritis.


So, Is Coconut Oil the New Snake Oil?


The fraudulent snake oil salesmen who hawked their products
catered to cowboys and frontier families in the American Wild
West of the late 18th and early 19th centuries may seem to
bear little resemblance to companies that produce the
beautifully packaged “organic” “extra virgin” coconut products
now staring at you from the aisles of reputable brick-and
mortar or online stores.

But, like snake oil, coconut oil is an unproven product with an
almost irresistible allure of the promise of a cure-all.  

Its allure is helped by the fact that it is sourced in the
imagination from the Jungian Other people who live far, far,
away across wide oceans in cultures untainted by our
comparatively corrupted and corruptible, industrialized,
contaminated, hyper-commercialized “ruined” modern worlds.  
When we buy coconut oil, to paraphrase Tom Cruise’s famous
line from the film “Jerry Maguire”, the marketers have us from
the word “coconut”.  The word "coconut" conjures up images
of palm trees swaying under clear blue skies on an endless
sunny day with tropical turquoise water tickling our toes.  And
we are there, lying under that tree, whole, complete, at ease,
natural, healthy and happy.  


But then a coconut falls from the tall tree, cracks us on the
head and wakes us from our reverie. Of course, we see, now
having come to our senses,  coconuts are not the cure for all
that ails us, either physically or emotionally. Coconuts have not
been proven as weight loss cures, diabetes cures, Alzheimer’s
cures or any other chronic health condition.  


Coconut are not “bad” foods.  Coconut oil may not be as
fraudulent as the iconic snake oil but neither is it a panacea.


What is a panacea, or at least close to it, is a balanced diet that
emphasizes a range of green and non-starchy vegetables, fish,
low fat dairy and heart-healthy oils such as those found in oily
fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, mackerel) and olive oil, whole
grains (oatmeal, rye barley) and staying consistently active
through every decade of your life.  That’s not an easy plan to
follow, it’s not as “sexy” or marketable as the image of  a
carefree natural existence conjured up by coconuts. But it
works.



































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