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Oil-inclusive cure?

Dear Lucy: My Facebook friends keep posting links to articles about the incredible health benefits of coconut oil. According to these articles, it can help you lose weight (especially belly fat), cure a variety of skin problems (acne, eczema, dandruff, psoriasis, stretch marks), give you shiny hair, and ward off all kinds of physical ailments-Alzheimer's, UTIs, heart disease, and more I can't remember at the moment. A few of my friends are even giving it to their pets. One is using it as a deodorant. ‬

‪Is there any truth behind any of these health claims, or have all my friends been duped by some nefarious international coconut lobby? ‬‬-Coco Nut‬‬

Dear Coco: Thank you for an interesting question. Or questions. So many questions, in fact, that Lucy needed two MIT Medical clinicians to provide all the answers. 

First up was Dermatologist Allison Larson, who calls coconut oil "an excellent moisturizer when used topically on the skin"—especially for people with eczema. "For eczema sufferers, it not only helps repair the skin barrier, it also cuts down on the numbers of problematic bacteria that can flare this condition," she says.

"Unfortunately," she continues, "the benefits become more questionable when looking at other skin conditions. Oils, in general, often cause flares of acne in acne-prone skin. When it comes to dandruff-which we dermatologist types refer to as 'seborrheic dermatitis of the scalp'—coconut oil can help to soften the scales; but, at the same time, it may increase the number of yeast on the scalp, which could cause this condition to flare." As for psoriasis, she tells Lucy, while coconut oil won't hurt, it won't particularly help either. "And, alas," she sighs, "for existing stretch marks, there are no successful topical treatments."

Nutritionist Anna Jasonides answers Lucy's inquiries even more bluntly: "It's no more than a clever marketing campaign," she says. "Just the latest American food fad to promise an easy fix for health problems resulting from unhealthy diets and lifestyles."

And it's anything but an easy fix, she adds. In fact, from a nutritional standpoint, it's likely to do more harm than good. "Although coconut oil is a plant fat, it's a saturated fat. A very saturated fat," she emphasizes. "In fact, 84 percent of its calories come from saturated fat. Butter, by comparison, gets 63 percent of its calories from saturated fat, while the number for olive oil is 14 percent."

Jasonides acknowledges the counterargument that most of the fatty acids in coconut oil are medium-, versus long-chain triglycerides, which our bodies process differently. "But," she says, "even so, there isn't enough research to claim that it makes a difference to your waistline or confers any other health benefit." On the other hand, she notes, there's strong and compelling evidence that replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is highly effective in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Lucy was unable to find a clinician who felt qualified to comment on the possible deodorant properties of coconut oil. Nor do we have a veterinarian on staff to address the topic of coconut oil and pets; however, a 2006 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association suggests that dogs and cats can consume "amounts of dietary fat that would typically turn human blood into sludge" without increasing their risk of coronary artery disease, heart attacks, or strokes, likely because they have more "good cholesterol" (HDL) than "bad cholesterol" (LDL) to begin with.

But you, my friend, are not a dog, and Lucy encourages you to resist the hype when it comes to coconut oil or whatever the next health fad may be. On the other hand, if you're looking for tested and proven ways to improve your diet and general health, Lucy suggests talking with your primary care provider and checking out the many excellent resources offered by Community Wellness at MIT Medical. -Lucy

Back to Ask Lucy Information contained in Ask Lucy is intended solely for general educational purposes and is not intended as professional medical advice related to individual situations. Always obtain the advice of a qualified healthcare professional if you need medical diagnosis, advice, or treatment. Never disregard medical advice you have received, nor delay getting such advice, because of something you read in this column.