The real health benefits of coconut oil

Can it treat eczema? Prevent Alzheimer’s? Five common claims are put to the test.

by 2


It takes a special type of oil to achieve meme status. But coconut oil definitely qualifies  the web is filled with articles promoting its abilities to fight dry skin, beat infections, reduce the risk of heart disease, help reverse Alzheimer’s, and, of course, prevent cancer. Here are five common claims closer look at five common claims to find out what’s true and what’s just wishful thinking.

Does coconut oil reduce your risk of heart disease?

It depends. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, but it’s unique because it’s predominantly lauric acid, which is a shorter, medium-chain fatty acid. As a result, coconut oil is better for you than butter. But a 2016 review looked at 21 studies on coconut oil and heart health and found that while it doesn’t raise LDL (bad) cholesterol and overall cholesterol levels as much as butter does, it’s still worse than unsaturated oils like olive oil.

“All people hear is coconut oil is better than butter, so they’re liberally adding coconut oil to foods that they wouldn’t necessarily add fat to. I have clients who are literally eating multiple tablespoons a day from the jar,” says Tristaca Curley, a registered dietitian in Kelowna, B.C. “Overall, it’s not a harmful food, but there are a lot of healthier [vegetables] oils that are going to be my go-tos.”

Is coconut oil antibacterial?

Coconut oil is high in lauric acid, a fatty acid that is antimicrobial. (Honey is another food with that property.) But that doesn’t meant that it treats infections or yeast overgrowth.

“Just because there’s a component that has an antimicrobial aspect in a petri dish, doesn’t mean that will decrease your chances of getting a bacterial infection,” says Curley. “There really is no research to support antibacterial benefits from eating it.”

Related: Everything you need to know about vitamin C

Can coconut oil treat eczema?

Yes. Coconut oil has real benefits when used topically, says Curley. The fats in coconut oil can actually be absorbed into the skin, and researchers also think they might be anti-inflammatory. In 2014, a randomized, double-blind clinical trial — the gold standard of research — looked at 117 children with mild to moderate eczema who applied virgin coconut oil or mineral oil. It found that the coconut oil was significantly better.

Curley uses its as an eye makeup remover and as a moisturizer for her kids. “There are no chemicals with it, and the fatty acids are natural moisturizers,” she explains.

Does coconut oil help prevent cancer?

“That’s completely a stretch,” says Curley. There’s some preliminary evidence it might, but studies that have shown coconut oil reduces the growth of tumours have only been done in mice — and that’s important, because research performed on rodents can’t always be applied to humans. If you do want to reduce your risk of cancer, suggests Curley, try what’s proven to prevent cancer, like more fruits and vegetables, or high-fibre foods.

Does coconut oil help reverse Alzheimer’s?

This is far from proven. The idea is that when we digest coconut oil, we produce ketones, which may help feed the brain. But a 2015 review of studies that looked at coconut oil and Alzheimer’s found that the research around how ketones might affect Alzheimer’s isn’t conclusive. The Alzheimer’s Society of Canada agrees, explaining that “there is no research to support or refute the theory that coconut oil can prevent or treat dementia” on its website.

Can’t sleep? Maybe you’re overthinking it
Here are the real health benefits of chia seeds
4 super seeds to keep in your pantry