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09th August 2015

Coconut oil is not a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s disease

Coconut oil is not a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s disease

Undoubtedly readers of this blog will have heard great things about the new ‘miracle’ food widely heralded in the media - coconut oil. With suggested benefits ranging from weight loss to stroke prevention, you may have even heard that coconut oil can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. This claim is not based on scientific evidence, though. Rather it relies on a theory that – as yet – has little robust scientific validity.

Why is coconut oil thought to be beneficial for Alzheimer’s disease?

The theory put forward is based on a premise that the nerve cells in the brains (neurones) of people with Alzheimer’s disease are not able to effectively utilise glucose, the brain’s main energy source, and consequently without sufficient energy supply, these neurons cannot function efficiently. Coconut oil supposedly acts as an alternative energy source.

Whilst this remains an unfounded assumption, it is nonetheless based on the principles of the ketogenic diet which has been shown to have benefit in some children with drug resistant epileptic seizures. This very high fat/low carbohydrate diet may suggest a benefit for an alternative energy source in these children, although the mechanism for the action of the diet has not been clearly defined.

Much of the evidence between coconut oil and Alzheimer’s disease is in fact anecdotal, where people have reported giving coconut oil to relatives and believe they see improvement in either mood or cognitive function. But anecdotal evidence is not science –and there is typically a large placebo effect.

So would using coconut oil as a culinary oil be of benefit in a care home ?

Two important points should be mentioned

  • The brain will always preferentially use glucose, so simply adding some coconut oil to the diet would not necessarily change the energy source. Using coconut oil as part of a ketogenic approach would require substantial consumption, and it's hard at this stage to understand the benefit or importantly the safety of giving people with Alzheimer’s disease coconut oil in large quantities or for a long period of time.
  • Coconut oil is high in saturated fats and could increase blood levels of cholesterol, which is a risk factor for heart disease and vascular dementia.

The good news is that a clinical trial has been funded to look at the potential benefit of coconut oil in mild or moderate Alzheimer’s disease, and we will report on this when results are published.

Until then we know good dietary patterns are important for cognitive health – including the intake of oily fish, wholegrains and plenty of fruit and vegetables – so let’s get that right before we dive into the unknown by using lots of coconut oil.

Ayela Spiro, British Nutrition Foundation – QCS Expert Nutrition Contributor

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