Coconut oil is the latest in a long line of foods to be touted as a miracle or super food. Its proponents claim many health benefits when coconut oil is part of your diet, regardless of whether you are pregnant or not. These benefits include:
- Positive effects on levels of good cholesterol, due to the primary fat in coconut oil – lauric acid – being a medium-chain fatty acid
- Antimicrobial properties due to lauric acid having antimicrobial features
- Enhancing immunity
For women who are pregnant, the alleged benefits include:
- Alleviation of morning sickness symptoms, heartburn, and constipation
- Stimulation of milk production after childbirth
- Improved weight gain and locomotor skills in babies of stressed mothers
What the evidence says about coconut oil
Let’s look at first at the claim that lauric acid has a beneficial effect on good cholesterol levels. Studies have found that coconut oil can indeed raise your levels of ‘good’ cholesterol, known as high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, but it also raises the levels of your ‘bad’ cholesterol, known as low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Therefore, the overall effect is neutral.
As for the claim that coconut oil has antimicrobial effects, this does appear to be true – however, there is one important caveat. Coconut oil has only shown antimicrobial activity in laboratory conditions – this does not necessarily mean that it would have an antimicrobial effect in your body following consumption! Until there are good quality clinical trials showing these positive effects in humans, it is best to treat this claim with a grain of salt. A similar situation relates to the alleged property of enhanced immunity – there are no high quality studies in humans that verify this claim.
Coconut oil in pregnancy
The alleged benefit of coconut oil for morning sickness is not backed by any scientific study. However, the claim of reducing heartburn may be more plausible, as some experts believe that coconut oil suppresses appetite and, consequently, decreases the desire to eat more food. This may result in a lower incidence of heartburn. However, as with morning sickness, there is no scientific evidence thus far to support this claim. Similarly, there are no good studies to support the claim that coconut oil can treat constipation. However, it may be beneficial for diarrhea, which is a well know pregnancy-related symptom. Medium chain triglycerides, such as lauric acid, are used for treating food absorption disorders, such as diarrhea.
Coconut oil can help with milk production after childbirth – but this is true of any high-fat food. There does not appear to be any special property associated with coconut oil that makes it any better than other fats when consumed for this purpose. The final claim of improved weight gain and locomotor skills in babies of stressed mothers is actually based on a study in mice. As with laboratory studies, this outcome cannot be extrapolated to humans, although it is indeed intriguing.
In conclusion, although there is a lot of hype surrounding coconut oil these days, many of the claims simply aren’t supported by scientific studies in humans. However, this doesn’t mean you should not include it in your diet, especially if you don’t have cholesterol issues. On the contrary, it may be useful to add to your diet towards the end of pregnancy when your stomach is smaller due to the baby exercising pressure on it and you finding it hard to eat the extra calories required for this part of the pregnancy.