Can You Eat Coconut Oil If You Have Diabetes?

Medically reviewed by Deborah Weatherspoon, Ph.D, MSN, RN, CRNA on April 25, 2016Written by Annamarya Scaccia

Coconut oil and diabetes

If you’re living with diabetes, you’ve likely been through the diet overhaul. Out with the rippled chips, white bread, and full-fat cheese. In with the whole-wheat toast, tofu, and celery sticks. Now you may want to replace the fats you use in your cooking.

You may have heard coconut oil may be a good substitute, but you may not be sure how it would affect your diabetes. Is it better or worse? Here’s what you need to know about coconut oil and diabetes.

Coconut oil 101

Coconut oil, also known as copra oil, is derived from the meat of mature coconuts. The oil is rich in antioxidants and energy-boosting triglycerides, and low in cholesterol.

Not only does the oil have a sweet, nutty flavor, but it also leaves behind little grease. It’s commonly used as a replacement for butter and olive or vegetable oils when baking or cooking.

Coconut oil also has many cosmetic uses, such as:

  • a natural skin moisturizer
  • a leave-in condition for your hair
  • an ingredient in homemade soap scrub and lotion recipes

What are the benefits of using coconut oil?

If you have diabetes, you know that maintaining a healthy weight is a key component of a diabetes meal plan. This is especially true of type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes generally begins with your body’s resistance to insulin. Insulin resistance is linked to excess weight.

A 2008 study found that people who consumed medium-chain fats like coconut oil as part of a weight loss plan lost more fat than participants who used olive oil. Coconut oil is high in medium-chain fats. This means coconut oil, a solid fat, is harder to convert to stored fat. This makes it easier for your body to burn it off.

Although separate studies, such as this 2009 study in Lipids, have corroborated this, there isn’t enough research to definitively support this claim.

Research has also found that “virgin” coconut oil possesses antioxidant and anti-stress properties. It’s important to note that, unlike olive oil, there isn’t an industry standard for virgin coconut oil. That means that virgin coconut oil can vary across manufacturers.

Typically, virgin means that the oil is unprocessed. The oil generally hasn’t been refined, bleached, or deodorized.

Does coconut oil affect type 1 and type 2 diabetes differently?

Some evidence suggests coconut oil can reduce the symptoms of type 2 diabetes. A 2009 animal study found that a diet rich with medium-chain fatty acids, such as coconut oil, could help prevent obesity and fight insulin resistance — both of which lead to type 2 diabetes. A more recent study using rats showed a reduction in blood glucose levels.

Researchers also found that medium-chain fatty acids could lower fat buildup and sustain insulin action in fat tissue and muscle.

There’s a downside, though. The rodents also showed greater fat buildup and higher insulin resistance in the liver. More research is needed on the relationship between coconut oil and type 2 diabetes.

A separate animal study published in 2010 found that rats with diabetes that consumed coconut oil had lower cholesterol levels and improved glucose tolerance.

At this time, there isn’t any research on coconut oil’s affect on people type 1 diabetes.

Risk factors to consider

Despite its potential benefits, coconut oil is still considered to be an unhealthy fat. This is because coconut oil contains saturated fat. Saturated fats can raise your cholesterol levels, which can lead to heart disease. People with diabetes have a higher risk of heart disease.

Still, some studies are starting to show that it’s a better choice than other accepted oils. When compared to sunflower oil, coconut oil didn’t change the lipid-related cardiovascular risk factors in those receiving standard medical care. Another study compared coconut oil and soybean oil. It found that soybean oil was more likely to induce obesity and symptoms of diabetes.

The American Diabetes Association suggests people with diabetes limit their saturated fat intake to help lower chances of a heart attack. The organization recommends substituting coconut oil with what it considers to be healthy fats, such as olive oil and safflower oil.

Learn more: Coconut oil and cholesterol »

How to add coconut oil to your diet

If you do decide to add coconut oil to your diet, you should do so in moderation. Every once in a while, consider substituting your usual oil with coconut oil when sautéing vegetables or mixing cookie dough.

If you want to substitute coconut oil in a baking recipe, make sure to melt the oil to its liquid state. The other ingredients should be kept at room temperature. This will prevent the oil from quickly solidifying into clumps.

Coconut oil packs a flavorful punch, so be careful not to use more than one serving size. A standard serving size of coconut oil is about a tablespoon.

The bottom line

Coconut oil does have its perks, but it’s still a saturated fat. This means that if eaten in excess, the oil could increase your risk for heart disease.

Although animal studies have shown some benefits, very little human research exists on how coconut oil affects diabetes. It may be safer to stick with healthy fats, such as olive oil, and only use virgin coconut oil in small amounts.

Keep reading: Diabetes nutrition guide: Reading food labels »

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