Coconut Oil for Cooking
Of all the cooking oils, coconut oil might be the most contentious. The tropical oil is embraced by adherents of the well-known ketogenic diet and is rumored to have benefits as a functional food, despite the fact that many nutrition experts warn that its high saturated fat content may clog arteries. So, what’s the real story about coconut oil and why it should be part of a healthy diet? Everything you need to know about this versatile oil is covered in this guide.
Coconut oil has exploded in popularity in recent years, with many people using it to cook their food or as an alternative to butter and other oils. In addition to the versatility of coconut oil in the kitchen, many people are now discovering that it has health benefits for their brain, improving memory and learning ability, as well as protecting against Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. This article takes you through various ways coconut oil can boost your health, including brain health and more.
How Does Coconut Oil Work?
The flesh of coconuts is the source of the tropical oil known as coconut oil. Coconut oil, both virgin and refined, can be found in stores. The front label will indicate which type you are purchasing. Virgin coconut oil retains its sweet, tropical flavor because it is less processed than refined coconut oil. The more processing that goes into refined coconut oil results in a flavor and smell that are more muted. You can use the refined variety as the primary cooking oil in a variety of recipes because it does not have the distinctive coconut flavor. The term “all-purpose coconut oil” is now frequently used to refer to “refined coconut oil,” so look for either phrase on the label. In addition, there is no official USDA designation for “extra-virgin” coconut oil, so marketing language is frequently used (not to be confused with olive oil, for which extra-virgin is the highest grade and virgin is unrefined).
Coconut Oil Nutrition Facts, Including How Many Calories It Has
These are the nutrition facts for a 1 tablespoon (tbsp) serving of coconut oil
That’s very similar to other oils. For instance, 1 tbsp of olive oil has 119 calories and 13.5 g of fat
Benefits of Coconut Oil
1. It may promote memory
Coconut oil enhances a better memory by promoting healthy neurons. A neuron is a fundamental unit of the brain and the nervous system. It’s a cell that helps transmit information between different brain areas and between the brain and the rest of the nervous system. Memory develops when various groups of neurons are reactivated, and for that to happen, the brain must wire an experience into neurons.
Unfortunately, creating memories can be quite challenging if your neurons are defective. Coconut oil, on the other hand, provides the energy that neurons need to function. It also fights inflammation and oxidative stress, both of which may damage the neurons.
Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are a type of fat that your body converts into ketones more easily than other fats. Ketones are used as fuel in your brain—they have actually been shown to improve synaptic plasticity, improving memory and cognitive function.
Taking 1⁄2 teaspoon of coconut oil 30 minutes before a class or lecture can help boost short-term memory, especially if you’re learning a new skill or language.
In addition, the antioxidants in coconut oil can slow memory loss, boost cognitive function, and improve your ability to learn new things.
Also, if your memory starts to slip as you age, coconut oil might be a solution. Long-term use of coconut oil may slow age-related memory loss.
2. Provides mental clarity
Studies have found that coconut oil can help keep your mind clear and alert, especially when taken in conjunction with daily exercise. The medium-chain triglycerides present in coconut oil have been shown to boost your metabolism, enabling you to burn more calories throughout the day. That, in turn, helps keep your mind sharp and focused on whatever task might be at hand.
Whether sitting through a long board meeting or staying up late finishing a project at work, coconut oil can help increase blood flow to your brain, which boosts your ability to think clearly and quickly. Just remember not to go overboard, as coconut oil can be in saturated fats. Ideally, you should not take more than two tablespoons (28) grams of coconut oil.
3. Protects against oxidative stress
Oxidative stress occurs when there are higher levels of free radicals in your body than can be neutralized by antioxidants. Free radicals cause damage to cells, which over time can lead to chronic diseases like Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Coconut oil contains lauric acid, a medium-chain fatty acid that has been shown to reduce oxidative stress in animal studies. This means it may help prevent brain degeneration and other neurological disorders associated with oxidative stress.
4. Reduces anxiety and depression
Consuming a small amount of coconut oil each day can reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. The lauric acid found in coconut oil has an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, and anti-viral effect on both the body and mind, which helps reduce inflammation—the primary driver behind both conditions. Coconut oil also raises levels of tryptophan, an amino acid that acts as a precursor to serotonin, helping promote a happy mood while fighting off mental conditions like depression. The lauric acid in coconut oil can also promote a happy mood. It does so by increasing the levels of dopamine in your brain. Dopamine is a feel-good hormone associated with pleasurable sensation, motor function, and increased response to stress and negative emotions.
Next time you feel anxious or depressed, try taking a spoonful of coconut oil. It’s packed with fat-burning medium-chain triglycerides that can help boost your energy levels and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.
5. Protects the brain against aging
In one study, young rats were given an injection of medium-chain triglycerides and then exposed to chemicals that are known to cause brain damage in old rats. But those treated with MCTs showed no signs of brain damage. Researchers believe that MCTs may help trigger autophagy—the removal of damaged parts of cells—which appears to be less active in older brains.
6. May improve Parkinson’s disease
Parkinson’s disease is a neurological disorder that affects movement. There are two main features of Parkinson’s disease: tremors and muscle rigidity (stiffness). People with Parkinson’s disease have an abnormality in their dopamine-producing cells in the brain. It’s these cells that coordinate and control muscle movement.
The symptoms of Parkinson’s disease usually develop slowly over time. The average age at which symptoms begin is 60 years old, but they can start earlier or later than that. Luckily, regular consumption of coconut oil may help prevent, slow, or improve the symptoms.
Research shows that medium-chain triglycerides can improve your nervous function, helping improve tremors, muscle pain, and constipation associated with Parkinson’s disease.
Coconut oil may also stop alpha-synuclein from accumulating in brain cells. Alpha-synuclein is a protein that’s usually elevated in patients with Parkinson’s disease.
Other Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
The health benefits of coconut oil aren’t so cut-and-dried; in fact, it’s a very controversial topic. One Harvard University professor commented that coconut oil is reines Gift, or “pure poison,” in a talk she gave in Germany. (In the viral video, the professor, Karin Michels, also says in German that the trendy oil is “one of the worst foods you can eat.”)
On the one hand, coconut oil advocates acknowledge that it’s high in saturated fat, which has been implicated in increased heart disease risk. But they point out that there’s something unique about the saturated fat found in the tropical oil: It’s rich in a medium-chain fatty acid called lauric acid, which may behave differently from other saturated fats. One study notes that while saturated-fat-rich coconut oil raises total and “bad” LDL cholesterol levels more than unsaturated plant oils, it didn’t do so by as much as butter.
One randomized clinical trial looked at the health result of consuming about 1.75 ounces of extra-virgin coconut oil, butter, or extra-virgin olive oil daily for four weeks. Much as previous research has shown, butter upped LDL levels more than coconut and olive oils. Coconut oil also increased HDL levels more than butter or olive oil. While this wasn’t a study on weight loss (so no one was told to, say, cut calories), the researchers noted that no one in the groups lost (or gained) weight or belly fat by adding any of these fats.
Concerns about coconut oil’s saturated fat prevent many experts from recommending it. Indeed, top nutrition and health researchers have recommended that people replace saturated with unsaturated fats to reduce heart disease risk.right up arrow Likewise, a review and meta-analysis on the health effects of coconut oil suggest that people avoid it because of its high levels of saturated fat, which they found raise LDL cholesterol significantly more than other types of (nontropical) cooking oils, making you more prone to conditions like heart disease.
Someone could jump to the conclusion that if saturated fat isn’t all that bad, and coconut oil’s fatty acids may even be health-promoting, they have carte blanche to eat it, as some past research has suggested.right up arrow
The facts as they stand are that the effect of coconut oil on health isn’t quite clear.
The reality may be that when placed in the typical standard American diet (dubbed the SAD diet), coconut oil may behave differently. The entirety of your eating habits may matter more than whether or not you include this oil. Baseline heart disease rates may be lower in South Asian cultures, which frequently consume coconut oil, and that may not be the case if the oil is included in any diet, research suggests.
“Observational evidence suggests that consumption of coconut flesh or squeezed coconut in the context of traditional dietary patterns does not lead to adverse cardiovascular outcomes. However, due to large differences in dietary and lifestyle patterns, these findings cannot be applied to a typical Western diet,” the authors of one review wrote.
Another plus of coconut oil is that it remains stable under heat, meaning it’s not as likely as other oils to oxidize and create harmful compounds like free radicals during cooking.right up arrow Different types of coconut oil are suitable for different cooking methods. Virgin coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees Fahrenheit (F) — meaning you can heat it up to that temperature before it begins to smoke and oxidize; refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point, of 400 degrees F, allowing you more leeway.
Is Coconut Oil Good for Weight Loss?
Medium-chain fatty acids like lauric acid are quickly broken down by the body and converted into energy, which is why the oil is often included in weight loss diets. A few small studies suggest that it may benefit your waistline, but, in moderation, it doesn’t have any measurable effect on BMI one way or another. And long-term effects on weight loss aren’t known. Plus, just because something may be metabolized quickly doesn’t mean you can have a field day. Coconut oil still contains calories, and eating more than your body needs will likely result in weight and fat gain.
Overall, research has been underwhelming and inconsistent.right up arrow But one study did find that supplementing with coconut oil for eight weeks reduced belly fat better than safflower, chia, and soybean oils in women who had obesity.
In one small study, men with obesity consumed 1 tbsp of either coconut or soybean oil per day while eating the same number of calories. After 45 days, there were no changes to the body composition in either group, though those eating the coconut oil increased their HDL levels.
Another small randomized controlled trial in men with metabolic syndrome found that substituting about an ounce of virgin coconut oil for existing dietary fat did not affect waist circumference at the end of the study.
Ideas for Cooking and Baking With Coconut Oil
It’s okay to include coconut oil in your dietary oil rotation, but you should lean more heavily on unsaturated fats that have consistent science behind their benefits, like olive oil. In general, aim to stay within the saturated fat limits for your diet.
When cooking, you can use coconut oil in stir-fries, with eggs, in baked goods, or for popping popcorn — just remember to choose virgin or refined according to your taste preferences. Some people also stir coconut oil into their coffee for a morning boost. Eating it cold is another option; spread a small amount of the more flavorful virgin coconut oil on toast, or consider adding a dollop to a smoothie for the satiating fat.
How to Use Coconut Oil in Your Beauty Routine
Beyond cooking, coconut oil really shines as a beauty product. You can use it on your hair as an in-shower mask to boost moisture, or smooth a bit on dry hair to tame frizz. In addition, one study suggests that the oil’s antimicrobial properties may support scalp health to treat dandruff.right up arrow On skin, coconut oil can be used as a lip balm or as a body moisturizer.
Even better, there are science-backed reasons to apply coconut oil topically. A past double-blind study compared virgin coconut oil with olive oil as a moisturizer for people suffering from atopic dermatitis, or eczema (an inflammatory skin condition with symptoms like redness and itchiness) and found that coconut oil reduced symptoms better than olive oil.
Coconut oil was also superior in clearing staphylococcus aureus (or a staph infection) from the skin (in 95 percent of cases) compared with olive oil (in 50 percent of cases), suggesting that the tropical oil has antifungal and antiviral properties.right up arro oil. In fact, 93 percent of those using coconut oil saw a moderate or excellent improvement, while 53 percent of those using mineral oil did.
Bottom line: If you have a jar of coconut oil in your kitchen, you may want to keep one in your bathroom, too.