At the start of a new year, it’s hardly uncommon to suddenly feel eager to begin a quest of self-improvement. The most popular New Year resolutions always seem to revolve around treating our bodies better, making healthier choices in the kitchen and maybe even dropping a new pounds.
One of the ways to do so is via substitutions, maybe making our favourite spaghetti bolognese with wholemeal pasta, or even courgetti instead for instance – or switching to cooking with coconut oil.
Countless claims have been made about this supposed ‘superfood’ in recent years, with advocates maintaining that it can improve digestive health, cure bad breath and can even be used for skincare, and sales of the product have boomed. But exactly how healthy is it really?
Dr Michael Mosley decided to conduct an experiment into coconut oil’s impact on cholesterol, which you can watch tonight on BBC 2’s Trust Me, I’m A Doctor. Here’s a look at what it’s all about…
Coconut oil might be a firm favourite with ‘healthistas’, but it is actually very high in saturated fat (86%) – far more so than other common cooking oils, such as butter (51%) or olive oil (14%) – which is associated with raised levels of ‘bad’ LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, the sort linked with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.
‘Good’ HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, meanwhile, is known to help ‘clean’ excess LDL from the bloodstream.
HDL levels still increase with consumption of saturated fats, but not enough to cancel out the damage linked with LDLs – instead, it’s recommended we source them through healthy unsaturated fats, in foods like avocado, nuts and oily fish.
For Dr Michael Mosley’s study (which you’ll be able to read in full in the British Medical Journal), 94 volunteers, aged 50-75 and with no history of diabetes or heart disease, were recruited. They were then randomly divided into three groups: an unsalted butter group, an olive oil group, and a coconut oil group, and instructed to eat 50g of their assigned foodstuff every day for four weeks.
Popular thinking suggests that, due to its high level of saturated fat, coconut oil consumption would see LDL levels rocket.
Before the experiment began, the volunteers had their LDL and HDL cholesterol levels measured. Their height and weight was also taken, plus their waist measurement, body-fat percentage and blood pressure. These tests were then repeated at the end of the experiment.
The group who ate unsalted butter saw their LDL levels rise by about 10%, and their HDL levels rise by about 5%. Those consuming olive oil saw a drop in their LDL levels, albeit to a non-significant extent, and a 5% rise in their HDL levels. Both of these results were unsurprising.
Coconut oil, however, was a shocker. The doctors were expecting to see a massive rise in LDL, but the this group saw none whatsoever. Plus, there was a massive upshot in HDL, by a staggering 15%.
This indicates coconut oil actually has an extremely positive effect on cholesterol, nothing like its high levels of saturated fat would suggest.
Professor Kay-Tee Khaw, who oversaw the study, was as surprised as we are.
“The main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, and lauric acid may have different biological impacts on blood lipids to other fatty acids,” she hypothesised.
But don’t go drinking coconut oil by the gallon just yet.
Khaw advises that: “This is just one study and it would be irresponsible to suggest changing dietary advice based on one study, however well conducted.”