The Coconut Craze: Coconut Oil

Last week I wrote about coconut water. I’m curious — how many of you drink coconut water, or have at least tried it? As I mentioned in my posting, I’m not a big fan of it. But unless you’re guzzling down glass after glass of this tropical beverage, there are really no major harmful ramifications. But what about coconut oil?


Controversial Coconut Oil
Many nutrition topics are murky, and the issue of whether coconut oil is a “good” fat or a “bad” fat is a prime example. A lot of people swear by coconut oil for various reasons. Those who enjoy baking like coconut oil because it makes a mean flaky pie crust and lends a unique, rich flavor to pastries and other goodies. Others use coconut oil for everyday cooking, claiming that it adds great flavor to vegetables, oatmeal, and even popcorn. Coconut oil is used extensively in Thai and Indian dishes, which, of course, is partly why these dishes are so tasty.

And then, there are those who swear by coconut oil for its supposed numerous health benefits, such as promoting weight loss, improving blood glucose control, and helping to treat heart disease. Can a tropical oil really live up to all these claims?

A Bit of Background
The use of coconut oil for cooking is nothing new in tropical regions. In the early 1900’s, this oil was actually used in the US as a cooking oil, but it gradually fell out of favor in the 1960’s when scientists began to examine coconut oil’s possible role in heart disease.

The link between coconut oil and heart disease stems from the fact that coconut oil is primarily a saturated fat (92% of the fatty acids in this oil are saturated). And, for the most part, saturated fat, or the “bad” fat, is linked with promoting heart disease. But the tricky thing about saturated fats is that not all of them are created equally. The saturated fatty acids in coconut oil are different than, say, those found in animal fats, like lard or beef fat. By the way, the use of the word “oil” when discussing coconut is a bit of a misnomer, as coconut oil is solid at room temperature (it becomes a liquid at temps above 75°F).

About half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which is a medium-chain fatty acid (and different than the long-chain fatty acids found in animal fats). The body uses medium-chain fatty acids differently than long-chain fatty acids; it may be that these medium-chain fatty acids are less harmful and possibly beneficial. Of note, a special type of oil, called MCT (medium-chain triglyceride) oil is available as a medical supplement for people who have difficulty processing regular fat as a result of certain medical conditions.

Lauric acid, surprisingly, may increase HDL (“good”) cholesterol, but may also boost LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, as well. Yet, it doesn’t seem to affect the ratio of the two in a bad way. Lauric acid may have other health benefits, including anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties, fighting acne, and boosting metabolism. Some of these benefits are unproven, however.

Is Coconut Oil OK to Use?
Back to coconut oil. Is it good or bad? Coconut oil got a bad rap, in part, because it was used in animal studies in a partially hydrogenated form. Virgin coconut oil, on the other hand, isn’t hydrogenated. And even though coconut oil still is high in saturated fat, some newer studies suggest that saturated fat may not quite be the villain it’s been made out to be.

Coconut oil may actually have some real health benefits. In one study, women given coconut oil as a supplement (along with a low-calorie diet) had a higher HDL cholesterol, a lower LDL:HDL ratio, and a decreased waist circumference compared to women given a soybean oil supplement. Another study, also with women, showed improved lipid levels with MCT oil compared with beef tallow. However, both of these studies were small, and at this time, there isn’t enough research to wholly recommend the use of coconut oil.

In terms of diabetes, a study published in 2009 in the journal Diabetes showed that mice fed coconut oil had less insulin resistance (their insulin worked better) and had less body fat than mice fed lard. The downside, though, was that the mice given coconut oil had higher insulin resistance in the liver, as well as greater fat build-up in the liver.

The bottom line? Using small amounts of virgin coconut oil is probably OK (avoid using partially hydrogenated coconut oil because it contains trans fat). Remember that coconut oil is still a fat: one tablespoon contains 117 calories and 14 grams of fat (and there’s not much evidence that swigging coconut oil will cause you to magically shed extra pounds).

Learn more about the health and medical experts who who provide you with the cutting-edge resources, tools, news, and more on Diabetes Self-Management.
About Our Experts >>

  • jim snell

    Good try Amy. Squirm, squirm. Caveats etc.

  • Dave Wendel

    Unfortunately I have to disagree with this article and have to say it makes me squirm as well! Visit Robb Wolf’s web site and read up on the Paleo Life style. Unfortunately Dr’s and Nutritionists have convinced everyone that eating low fat whole grain diets are a good thing. When in reality by eating good fats such as coconut oil, olive oil and so on you fill yourself up and feel full. Getting rid of the grains and gluten out of your system is an excellent way to stabilize your BG and to get to rid of the huge swings. Robb Wolf says it better than me so see below!

    Saturated fat has been demonized by our health authorities and media. What is the basis for this position on Saturated fat? Are current recommendations for VERY low saturated fat intake justified? How much saturated fat (and what types), if any should one eat? Without a historical and scientific perspective this questions can be nearly impossible to answer. In this paper Prof. Cordain looks at the amounts and types of saturated fats found in the ancestral diet: Saturated fat consumption in ancestral human diets: implications for contemporary intakes.
    One of the greatest deviations away from our ancestral diet is the amounts and types of fat found in modern grain feed animals vs. the amounts and types of fats found in grass fed or wild meat, fowl and fish. What we observe is wild meat is remarkably lean, and has relatively low amounts of saturated fats, while supplying significant amounts of beneficial omega-3 fats such as EPA and DHA. In this paper Prof. Cordain and his team analyze the complete fatty acid profile from several species of wild deer and elk. The take home message is that free range meat is far healthier than conventional meat: Fatty acid analysis of wild ruminant tissues: Evolutionary implications for reducing diet-related chronic disease.
    Unless you have a solid background in physiology and biochemistry, understanding the mechanisms of cardiovascular disease can be daunting. Simply understanding what is being discussed in a paper can take s significant amount of time and effort. This paper is a remarkably straight forward discussion of ALL the factors related to CVD and dietary fat intake. The bottom line: Saturated fat has some influence, but it is secondary to issues such as systemic inflammation caused by trans fats, high carbohydrate intake and a skewing of our ancestral omega-3/omega-6 fats: Dietary fat quality and coronary heart disease prevention: a unified theory based on evolutionary, historical, global and modern perspectives.

  • Diabetic Survival Kit

    Interesting article and comment following. during the time I have been in medical practice, I have seen fads come and go. About 30 years ago when I was practicing, people were encouraged to lower their fat intake in order to control their weight. This lead to more intake of either protein or carbohydrates. Because carbohydrates taste better and are cheaper, people often shifted to carbohydrates. I wonder if these recommendations have contributed to our epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Nowadays, people get on the internet, and then change their diet based on a few articles without verifying the site, the knowledge of the author of either the site or the article. I appreciate the critical thought in both your comments on the article as well as the above comment. We need to verify though carefully planned studies before making widespread recommendations that influence may influence several generations of people.

  • jim snell

    Great Response Dave. Regarding the grains, I do whole heartedly agree. I have to watch those like a hawk or shoot up my BG bad. Even worse than sugars.

    Breads, grains are a tough hoe. Thanks for the extensive detailed data and response.

  • jim snell

    thank you to Diabetic Survival kit for excellent introspective comments and thoughts.

  • acampbell

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your response. I’m not exactly on clear as to who Robb Wolf is and why he is considered an expert. However, based on what I’ve read on coconut oil, my view is to take a cautionary stance until we learn more. Note that I didn’t say one needs to avoid coconut oil (except for the hydrogenated version); just to use with some caution. I agree that we need a better understanding of just how saturated fat really works. We do know that not all saturated fatty acids are alike and some appear to be healthier than others. So let’s hope we learn more very soon.

  • Joe

    Unfortunately the majority of coconut oil consumed in the US is of the hydrogenated form as an ingredient in or used in the processing of snack foods. Commercially prepared popcorn, for example, is commonly popped in hydrogenated coconut oil.

  • jim snell

    Can’t win em all.

  • Jim

    All this, and to think my mother aunts Grandmother and many more were raised on lard and Bacon fat for cooking all their lives and let me see mother died at age 88 dad at 92 aunts and cousins one 99 and aunt 102. They should have all died in their 30s and 40s??????????

  • calgarydiabetic

    Well my HDL was 30% higher on a high saturated fat diet including coconut fat, cheese, butter with the LDL unchanged compared to a higher carb diet including all the healthy whole wheat grains. My blood sugars are way better on a low carb diet.

    Carbs are the problem ?

    • Bryn Stables

      carbs are metabolised into sugars when digested. Sugar is stored as fat in your body.

  • Beverly

    I attended a class about keeping my blood glucose level under control at Nutritional Weight and Wellness a couple of years ago. Virgin coconut oil was listed as one of the good fats. They also recommended the use of lard. Using these fats and following a low carb diet got my A1c down to 5.8 so far. My HDL is up and my LDL is down. Low carb got rid of my indigestion.

  • Priscilla

    I tried taking coconut oil daily and found it had a laxative effect. I told my grown son about my problem, and he laughed. He reminded me of the scene in the movie “Castaway” in which the protaganist was living on coconuts and coconut oil and got the trots, which was so severe that he thought he was going to die. After that I cut back on my use of coconut oil.

  • Nasiru Abubakar

    I read the article and comments all are nice.But for me is good to avoid coconut oil bcos of fat nd go for whole grain and vegetables.These will normalize nd control you BG.

  • anabela

    i couldn’t help not to post after I saw Jim’s comment that his relatives died at an old age of 88 and higher. I have to wonder how farm natural that lard and bacon were compared to the highly processed foods that we eat today. Its been said that any plant or nut based food in its closest form is the most beneficial to our diets. Take a look at avocados – high in fats but great for the balance between the HDL and LDL. eating coconut or using coconut oil one or twice or even three times a month isn’t where any damage will occur but considering we aren’t getting any better in our health, i do have to wonder where the experts reside. see if you ever hear any of them say corn oil is bad

  • Jorge nieto berghusen

    well after treating myself with coconut oil fruits ,vegetables,and fish ,I kep my levels of cholesterol ,Blood/Sugar rates are normal as wells my Neuropathies are GONE no more pains no more craving for sweets or carbohydrates,and to be TRUE thanks to CVO I feel pretty energetic at 63
    thank you

  • Roberto Garciar

    you right mr nieto. CVO we taking about pure extra virgin coconut oil that pack 62 % medium chain fatty acids, rich in lauric acid, caprylic and capric, and you read what they do for your health. i am 77 and feeling very good. No breads, stevia (natural sugar) no grains and NEVER any soda regular or diet. salmon, vegs, no corn, some fruits with low sugar. My blood pressure is Ok. gim once a week. But i tell you CVO is # one.

  • mmm

    I grew up eating a lot of coconuts, as a kid I hated the smell of the oil. I remember my great grandmother using it in our hair and our on skin. When one of us came down with a cold she would give us a spoon full. I forgot all about using coconut oil, until a couple months ago my 3 month old cousin had a very bad bronchial infection for which he had to be taken to the emergency room twice. His grandmother remembered my great grandmothers remedy, and she began to use it with the baby. In no time the baby recovered. As, a matter of fact I only have to take a look at my 80 year great aunt ( who everyone thinks is 60), and believe that there are some merits to using cocnut oil. She litterally grew up on it.

  • Kate

    For me, carbs are like poison. I am diet controlled diabetic and i use coconut oil on a daily basis. I eliminated all carbs, ie bread, white potatoes, rice etc. and this had some affect on my brain. Foggy, unfocused. I found coconut oil not only helps to keep my blood sugars level, it is huge for my brain.
    I take 2 tblsp a day,(another if my brain needs it)and cook with it.
    I cringe when I read on some sites taking 10-12 tbslp a day is ok! Moderation is the key.
    I enjoyed this thread, thanks for the sharing!

    • Liz

      Did you really remove ALL carbs? That is really scary. What is wrong with whole grains, starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and corn? YOU are confused about a healthy diet and it does NOT include coconut oil!

  • Dots

    I can’t help but mention about Jim’s post as well. Anabela, you seem to be seeing a part of potential reason for it. However, the one thing we are missing is the age of his relatives. My relatives died in their 90s as well. They were farmers who processed a lot of their own foods. Organic compared to today’s food, definitely not processed like today as well.

    But take that point out of the conversation for now. I wanted to point out the age again. Think of what life was like 90 some years ago. We didn’t sit stationary for nearly as long as we do now. It was hard labor which those fat ‘calories’ were needed every day. The age of sitting for long periods really only exploded once the Internet was brought into the homes in the late 80s/early 90s. We can’t forget gaming as well. Home consoles began to take a large hold of the market in the early 80s and more kids sat inside instead of playing outside. All of the technology we have, despite the making life easier, can be a reason for us having a life like we do.

    If we lost our technology today, we would, again, have to pick up more calories on a day to day basis to function. We eat more calories than we burn. This turns to fat, we ‘stock’ it in our bodies, and bad things happen. So before you decide to go inhale some saturated fat foods, ask yourself “How will I burn these calories off once I eat them?” If you don’t know how you will, or even how many calories you are eating, you should be watching how many you intake for how much you need daily. Just remember you burn carbs, then proteins, THEN fats when you burn the calories. You’ll need that exercise to keep that muscle and lose the fat!

  • Dprang

    Interesting discussion on this topic….
    I have diabetes type 2 and elevated cholesterol, I have become obessed with finding the right way of eating since 2009.
    My doctor almost went ballistic on me when she asked what fats I use and I said coconut oil. She is of the old school. I have lost 25 lb WITHOUT dieting in 3 years. My AIC for blood glucose has been normal for 2 years.
    My cholesterol is still elevated but my HDL has slowly increased to be well within normal range although I do have elevated LDL. It is likely inherited. All other numbers are normal.
    My goal is to NOT take a statin drug. My doctor keeps prescribing but I file them in the not to do pile.
    My last 10 lb dropped this summer as I decided to restrict grains other than Kamut and Spelt etc.
    I include fat in the form of natural nuts so that every meal and snack includes some good fat.
    I find adding legumes helps me to stay away from grains. I also started CLA supplements in the spring (courtesy of dr oz show). My waist is finally under 30inches and my mid belly has flattened out. I am light on my feet with decent energy which allows me to be active.
    The answer for me is simply to avoid processed foods, drink water with lemon. I still eat fruit but try to stick to berries and dried figs for fiber.
    The best part is that I love eating this way…amazing what food really tastes like without added sugars, salts and chemicals. Add to this, I eat fish and free range chicken and greek plain yogurt.
    If I can do this, anyone can…I am an apple shape, but now a nice apple shape.
    A further note on coconut oil and this is important. It handles heat like few oils can. Rancid fats are no good for us, so this one fact has to be considered. Make sure you buy cold pressed virgin oils of any type. Throw out your oils in cheap plastic bottles… cheap oils are processed oils and usually in cheap plastic containers. Do not go crazy over oils… they are caloric… a dab here and there is fine.

  • Dprang

    Unfortunately we are not living in the old days.
    Our lives are frought with stress due to the high competiveness in the work force and of course we drive everywhere.
    Excercise is very important, but so is what we injest into our bodies.
    I am retired now, and I gave up my car so that I am forced to walk, run, bike etc.
    It takes a commitment to being healthy and that involves food in a big way.
    Most of us eat highly processed foods. Very few of us commit to eating the higher costs of animal products to avoid the crap fed to farm animals and I mean CRAP! Read up on Monsanto seeds and their plans to add roundup pesticides to just about every living plant and farm animal if they can. Become an activist for natural foods by boycotting the CRAP foods from grocery stores.
    In other words, inactivity happens when we lack the energy from foods to move properly.
    I know this because I was one of those who ate poorly, drank soda pop with artificial sweeteners.
    I honestly believed a fat was a fat, protein a protein and it did not matter from where….
    I was soooooooooo wrong!

  • roberto garcia

    This to Dprang- sep 17 2012.
    about the statins i read a lot and everything is bad. they do more damage than good. what drs. never going to prescribe to you is nattokinase because is a natural. nattokinase i read dissolve blood clots. better you google and find out for yourself. something else i learn take any corn oil or canola oil in your kitchen and dropped in the waste can. they are no good for diabetes.i order my coconut oil by internet and is the real thing.

  • Ant


    Hi, in your post above you stated:
    “Just remember you burn carbs, then proteins, THEN fats when you burn the calories. You’ll need that exercise to keep that muscle and lose the fat!”

    I think you’ll find this is not quite right. As I understand it, we burn carbs followed by stored fats – firstly from visceral fat in liver/pancreas, then from fat reserves (eg tummy, thighs, etc). To access and convert the stored fats back into fuel however, protein is required. If protein is not present in our diet, the body robs it from its muscle mass. Can anyone else confirm this?

    I totally agree with the rest of your comments. Exercise is a difficult thing to accept as a necessary part of a healthy life because we’re such lazy creatures. Plus, we’ve almost got to the stage where we honestly expect technology to solve all our problems (ie: “I need exercise. Can I have a pill for that?”). In the last two months I’ve given up smoking and taken to walking heaps each day (I’m up to 10 km a day now) because of my pre-diabetes diagonsis. Also, I’ve refrained from all refined carbs and even regular carbs for the time being ’cause I’m trying to lose weight (particularly visceral fat). In these last two months my fasting BGL has come down from 16mmol/L to 4mmol/L (in American BGL denomination that’s 288 down to 72).

    By the way, I’m convinced that technology will one day easily sort out our diabetes epidemic without the need for exercise or a complicated regiment of medication. But it’s clear that that day isn’t here yet. And while I’ve got the inclination and drive to feel like a 46 year old that’s barely turned a diabetes-medication-free 40, I’ll continue doing what I’m doing.

    • richardhg

      Wrong. You burn carbs, if they are available, and then you start destroying muscle mass to make carbs. When you have been off carbs for 3 days, you will start to burn fat, but if you don’t exercise, you will not make this transition easily, if at all. Your body will demand more carbs or protein, because the ability to burn fat has almost closed down with lack of exercise..

      Dot was right If you are eating carbs, your body refuses to move to fat-burning until your body has been devoid of carbs for a couple of days at least. Athletes make the transition easily. About 98% of Americans are not athletes.

      And the ‘one day’ you speak of has come and gone. The solution to Type 2 diabetes has been published in any number of books since the mid-90’s.

      I was recently asked by an elderly friend of mine, who is diabetic, to accompany her to her first appointment with her newly appointed primary health care doctor at Kaiser. It was a good get-together. During this meeting, I asked this new doctor, “Would you agree that Type 2 diabetes is 100% curable?”.

      She replied, “Yes. But our patients are not compliant with the regimen, so we give them drugs.”

      The regimen of which she spoke was exercise, visceral weight loss, and carbohydrate restriction.

      • AggieMom

        totally true. I am on a ketogenic diet for medical reasons (epilepsy). The first three days or so were unpleasant. So I explain to folks that the body has to shift gears metabolically–that can’t happen while there is still glycogen in the liver, and that takes about 18 hours to deplete, if I remember right. After the three days, I started feeling good! For me, the health benefits were more obvious (no seizures) so it was easier to stay compliant.

  • prem chandra

    iam from the west coast of india where we use coconut meat which is called copra in our daily cooking.we also use coconut oil for stir frying vegetables and also seafood dishes and curries. in our region life expectancy is 75 or 80 plus.i am 83 and still kicking and so also my siblings and many friends. coastal people in our are not fat or obese as compared to people in some other regions in india.

    • vicky

      I remember visiting Kerala years ago (15 years) – I remember hearing at the time that the leading cause of death was heart disease and the culprits coconuts! Could it be, that you are just not susceptible
      to this?

      • richardhg

        Vicki, that research was funded by vested interests in the US who wanted to sell corn oil and other vegetable oils to the food industry, to put in the cookies and cakes that get sold here. That is rather like looking to the Tobacco Lobby for information on the health issues surrounding cigarettes 20 years ago.

        I challenge you to find a single reference in the scientific literature to your assertions that coconut oil causes problems like heart disease. AL:L OF THE PROBLEMS ARE CAUSED BY CARBOHYDRATE CONSUMPTION!!!

  • Crabbyapple

    Eating coconuts as a large part of a diet is not a fad. It has been done for at least tens of thousands of years, from the Maldives to the Philippines spices fish poultry fresh veg rice and coconuts have been the main, normal and healthy diet. These areas have had a very healthy population. In some areas though there were obesity and heart problems. Tonga is an example. Note though that there they ate on top of the good diet an excess of pork. Now they have cut coconuts out of their diet and increased meat consumption resulting in huge health problems.

    Some people live in areas where whale fat and seal blubber makes a good snack between meals, they have evolved to handle the diet. Living in freezing conditions they can easily burn off the calories, they would not survive too long on that diet in the Sahara.

    The question is not if it is healthy but if it is healthy for someone whose ancestors did not evolve to eat it. I am a twentieth century Briton, some of my ancestors came from dairy eating areas, some from pig breeders, plenty of north sea fishermen, some mountain goat hunters, some wheat growers and perhaps some North African soldiers of the Romans with genes to enable them to eat lamb and cous cous. I have no idea what my DNA provides me with as far as eating is concerned.

    I can however go on what makes me feel good. I know that a serving of rich chocolate cake will make me feel awful, fish and salad lemon juice and olive oil will make me feel healthy. Mango makes me sigh with relief suet pudding makes me fall asleep.

  • Ann

    I’m diabetic and started the CO in March 2013; but, I after 2 months I quit taking it – because it became routine, like taking my pills.

    By May, my A1C came down from 8.9 to 8.5, and that was with my careless diet, undisciplined pill regime, and after 2 months of taking the CO.

    Could this 4 point drop be due to the CO? – most likely.

    It’s July and my accuchecks are averaging 230 – very worrisome! but, my fault; So, I became strict with diet, pills and easing back into using the CO; my goal is to ingest 3TB per day.

    I have a terrible sweet tooth, and the CO and a peice of dark chocolate is my sweet treat.

  • kjforce

    Coconut Oil can be used for a healthier lifestyle, but like should be used in moderation. This has been the problem with many newly introduced foods, some feel if this is the mainstay of the diet, it will ” cure all “..there are NO miracle cures. Eating a well balanced diet and exercise is the key to maintaining a healthy body.
    However it is a medically known fact that Coconut Water can be administered by intravenous injection directly into the body to prevent dehydration, or re-hydration.. frequently used in WW2….

    • richardhg

      Quote your sources.

      I have been re-educating dieticians, who have been accustomed to quoting Carbohydrate-Lobby-funded research, without checking their sources. Rather like using research from the Tobacco Lobby when discussing lung cancer 20 years ago. The Carbohydrate Lobby is bigger than the entire Defense Industry.

      Coconut water is rubbish. Yes, in desperation, it can be injected as a replacement for saline solution, but even suggesting that a diabetic should consider this is about as responsible as suggesting you could inject coca cola. As long as it doesn’t have any bacterial contamination, you may be able to use it, but this is in no way an optimal food.

      Tropical oils were demonized out of the diet by Carbohydrate Lobby bogus research, because locally-grown vegetable oil wanted a bigger market (corn oil, etc).

      You may note that the USDA took cholesterol off their list of limited-consumption foods this year. We have known for many years that cholesterol cannot be digested as cholesterol in the diet. It is broken down into its constituent fats and amino acids, and is a microscopic part of our daily fat and protein consumption.

      The problems have always been with excessive carbohydrate consumption. Your comments are equivalent to voodoo. Yo give useless advice, and unfortunately, no solid recommendations.

      If you want an education, Google the word ‘ketogenic’, followed by diabetes, or cancer, or any other disease condition you like. There has been a flood of new research conducted over the past 15 years, mainly a result of people in the NIH getting on the ball in their own personal lives. (A ketogenic diet is a high-fat diet.)

      I avoid vegetable oils, with the exception of canola and olive oils, and coconut oil. I eat butter, and fatty meats. Bacon and eggs for breakfast. My fasting blood sugar is now 80 mg/dL, which is perfection.

      Finally, if you want the benefit of the only large-scale study on carbohydrate consumption ever, read the book “Life without bread”. It will open your eyes. It was done in Germany. Couldn’t
      t be done in the US. The Carbohydrate Lobby torpedoes everything that they see impacting their sales model.

      • Patricia Geary

        I wouldn’t say Coconut water is rubbish. We locals in Asia drink fresh coconut water whenever we feel dehydrated, have mouth ulcers, dry coughs, fever, hair loss, Some practice the 7-days ‘detox’ which I found, beneficial.

  • Julie Fry

    I lost 25 pounds (I’m overweight) and couldn’t figure out why. I was worrying I might be sick. The only change was switching out almond milk with homemade coconut milk I made from dehydrated shreds, for three months. Your admonitions of going easy on CO are unfounded.

    • Kaya

      How do you make coconut milk?