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Coconut craze: Oil from this tropical fruit is finding its way everywhere

| Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, 9:00 p.m.

Coconut — it's not just for pie filling anymore.

In recent years, coconut oil has found its way onto numerous lists of super foods, and into a wide array of health and beauty products.

“Coconut is a hot topic,” says Edith Nault, a dietician with the Excela Health Well Being Center for Mind/Body Health. “A couple of years ago it was chia seeds and kale, and now it's coconut. I think the interest in Asian cuisines, like Thai and Indian, that use coconut has added a lot to that.”

Proponents of coconut oil's nutritional properties say it's good for weight loss, heart health and digestion, among other things. Fans of its cosmetic benefits say it's antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and anti-aging.

“The claims out there are basically that it helps speed up the metabolism, shrinks your waistline, cures Alzheimer's and dementia,” Nault says. “You'll see websites saying it improves your ability to lose weight, helps you stay fuller longer. It's a cure-all; it does everything.

“There are some great properties to coconut oil, but there are definitely no randomized, controlled trials out there that would be proponents of all those claims.”

Nault explains that coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids as opposed to the long-chain fatty acids in oils from olives or soybeans, for example. A medium-chain fatty acid “is broken down quicker and used for energy quicker, so the body is not as likely to store it,” she says.

“There has been research that has shown, if you use coconut oil as a replacement for another oil, you can feel fuller. But that's the thing, it has to be a replacement for something else,” she says. “Sometimes (people) take the coconut oil, but then they're still having the red meat and the carbohydrates in the Westernized diet. So you're actually getting a double whammy on your heart health. You have to be careful if you want to use coconut oil as a replacement that your diet doesn't also have high carbohydrates and not enough fruits and vegetables and fiber.”

Coconut oil beauty products, while popular, likewise can have pros and cons.

Kelly Shirey, an aesthetician at A Finished Appearance Salon and Day Spa in Lower Burrell, says she doesn't use coconut products and is “not a great supporter of using coconut oil on the face.”

“What I've learned about coconut oil is that it's very comedogenic, or pore clogging,” she says. “Look it up on the comedogenic scale, and I think it's a four on a scale of five.”

The scale rates oils from zero to five; those given higher ratings are more likely to clog pores.

Thus, comedogenic oils may be more likely to produce or aggravate acne and blackheads, while non-comedogenic oils are less likely to contribute to such issues.

Although lists vary, coconut oil regularly gets a rating of at least four.

If you like coconut oil and can use it on your face without adverse effects, it is a good moisturizer, Nault says.

Different skin types will tolerate different types of oils or products containing them. Oily skin may react poorly to more comedogenic oils, while people with normal to dry skin may like their effects.

If coconut oil products aggravate sensitive facial skin, they still can work well on other parts of the body, Shirey says.

“It's great for legs and elbows, anywhere that the skin is thicker and rougher, where you need deep hydration. It's great for deep conditioning your hair.”

Lavish Salon & Spa in Greensburg offers a coconut oil full body wrap for deep skin hydration, says salon manager and stylist Hannah Elisabeth. The salon mixes its own products using coconut oil.

“We recommend a body scrub beforehand, then after the coconut oil is applied, you're wrapped in a foil blanket. It's warm, and the oil really penetrates into the skin,” she says. “It's very hydrating, especially after these long, cold winters when skin gets really dry.”

“(The wrap) was added to our services probably about a year ago,” Elisabeth says. “Our owners like to research what's new and good in skin treatments, and coconut oil has become really popular everywhere.”

Coconut oil products are used in a variety of applications at the Ayurveda Integrative Wellness Institute in Robinson, says Sydney Decker, the clinical wellness assistant to founder and director Lina Thakar.

Ayurveda, which originated in India more than 3,000 years ago, is a holistic healing practice that promotes health and wellness through the balance of mind, body and spirit. Specific diets, massage, yoga, herbs and oils can be employed.

The institute offers both spa and clinical treatments, many of which incorporate coconut, Decker says.

“In the last year I've noticed, when I explain a treatment and the products I'll be using, when I mention coconut oil, more and more clients have been saying, ‘I use that at home,' ” Decker says.

“We use coconut oil in a lot of our massage treatments,” she says. “It's good for hydration and it calms the nervous system. It's good for the skin in the summertime because of its cooling properties, and it can be really helpful for acne, rosacea and inflammation of the skin, because it is an anti-inflammatory.”

Decker agrees that, despite its positives, coconut oil isn't a cure-all: “All of our treatments are individualized. We use what works for you.”

“(Coconut oil) has had more of a niche in holistic medicine and nutrition,” Nault says. “With interest in the past few years for more natural, paleo-type diets, that's when it really got people's interest. It does raise intriguing possibilities for more research.”

Whether for skin or diet, Nault recommends using virgin or cold-pressed coconut oil. The purer the product, the more likely it is to retain its natural benefits, she says.

Shirley McMarlin is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-836-5750 or smcmarlin@tribweb.com.

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