Coconut oil is basking in the superfood spotlight. However, the jury's still out on whether to declare it a miracle food.
Terri Taylor, a registered dietitian and nutrition educator at HonorHealth's Virginia G. Piper Cancer Center, agrees there may be some health benefits from coconut oil. But she's far from offering a blanket endorsement of it as a health food staple.
One concern is the overall shortage of scientific research to back up the varied health claims.
Only a limited number of documented studies with small sample sizes show some potential health benefits. In contrast, hundreds of studies have repeatedly confirmed the well-documented health benefits of extra virgin olive oil, a monounsaturated fat that the body needs.
Another potential concern is that coconut oil is primarily saturated fat. The types of fatty acids in coconut oil may not have the negative health effects of those in animal foods, but they still contribute to overall saturated fat intake. Coconut oil increases both HDL or "good" cholesterol and LDL or "bad" cholesterol. The American Heart Association recommends that only five to six percent of your daily calories come from saturated fat, even if coconut oil is the source.
Studies also suggest that, unlike most foods high in saturated fat, the body doesn't store coconut oil as fat. Instead, it's used as energy. This is likely why it's touted as a weight loss aid.
Make it extra virgin coconut oil
Though more research is needed, Terri says consuming extra virgin coconut oil in moderationmay help reduce inflammation. Virgin coconut oil is loaded with polyphenols -- phytochemicals that help prevent disease. Refined coconut oil is void of these disease fighters.
Coconut oil also has some antimicrobial properties, meaning it helps kill microorganisms and other bacteria in the body. When used topically, coconut oil is a good moisturizer for skin and hair.
The role of coconut oil is being investigated in slowing the progression of pancreatic cancer and Alzheimer's disease in patients undergoing treatment. So far, it has not been shown to prevent onset of either condition, but it may be helpful as part of a broader treatment plan.
For now, Terri recommends including a variety of plant fats from oils, nuts, seeds and avocados as part of a healthy eating plan rather than focusing on a single source.