Coconut oil can fix anything, even Alzheimer’s? Not so fast ...

December 06, 2017

Coconut Oil facts

By Addison Ford, MS, MPH, RD

Coconut oil seems to be the latest food cure for any and all ailments.

Want to lose weight? Use coconut oil!

Have thyroid problems? Try coconut oil!

Have a mysterious illness with no known cause? Cure it with coconut oil!

Nearly all of these types of claims are based on personal testimonials and not rigorous scientific research. What is certain is that unrefined/ virgin coconut oil is 92% saturated fat and has just as much fat and calories as any other fat (1 tablespoon = ~120 calories, 14g of fat and 12g of saturated fat). Most saturated fats are found in animal products (like butter, beef fat, chicken with skin on, etc.), are solid at room temperature and contain cholesterol. Unlike these saturated fats from animal-based products, tropical oils, like coconut and palm oils, depending on the temperature of the room, can be solid, semi-solid, or liquid and do not contain cholesterol.

Coconut oil is composed of different types of fatty acids (as are all fats). Coconut oil has a larger proportion of short and medium chain fatty acids and it is thought that this particular property may offer some health benefits.

What’s the claim?

Coconut oil’s medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) go through less processing in the body than other fats in order to be used. These MCTs get converted to ketones in the liver.  In a person with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), their brain is  unable to utilize glucose in the portions of the brain affected, but it might be able to use the ketones as a fuel source instead.

How does it work?

Coconut oil is largely composed of medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), unlike the majority of dietary fat which is mostly long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). These MCTs have to go through less processing in the body to be used than LCTs and are therefore more ketogenic or more easily converted into ketones than other fats.

The Research

There have been no clinical studies looking at coconut oil and its impact on Alzheimer’s dementia (AD).  That being said there have been clinical studies looking at the use of particular components of coconut oil, specifically caprylic acid. “Ketasyn” was a nutritional beverage tested in phase 1 and 2 drug trials testing its safety and dosing but did not advance to phase 3 trials on its efficacy. This is just another way of saying it didn’t do what it claims, which is help those with AD. The company decided to bring it to market anyway but as a “medical food” called “Axona”. Medical foods do not have to undergo FDA review or approval. It is likely that although there was no impact on patients with beginning and advanced stages of AD, the company still wanted to make money so they brought it to market anyway.

There have been few clinical trials looking at coconut oil at all and the few studies done studied its impact on blood lipids. These studies found that coconut oil raised HDL (“good cholesterol”), but also increased LDL (“bad cholesterol”). Compared to other saturated fats (i.e. animal fats) that only raise LDL cholesterol, coconut oil might be a slightly better alternative for baking with, instead of margarine or butter. Other vegetable-based oils like canola or olive oil are unsaturated (liquid at room temperature) and can help raise HDL without impacting LDL, which is the healthiest option.

Is it safe?

Coconut oil, when used in moderation, is likely safe. As long as you keep the amount of saturated fat in your diet to less than 10% of calories, the choice is up to you whether you prefer it to other sources of saturated fats.

Is it worth trying?

Coconut oil can range in price from $5 to $20 for a 16oz jar. It can be purchased in a refined or unrefined (i.e. extra virgin) form. Just like for olive oil, the unrefined version is preferred. If you are going to bake some dessert and enjoy a mild coconut flavor, try replacing the butter with coconut oil and see how it turns out.

As far as using coconut oil to prevent or minimize AD symptoms, it might do more harm than good if eaten in excess due to its impact on increasing LDL cholesterol.


Tags: Nourish



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