photo of coconut cut in half

Coconut Oil is Not Healthy After All

Coconut oil is everywhere you look these days, from the baking aisle to the beauty counter. For years, the tropical oil has been touted as a healthier alternative to fats from animal sources, but new research from the American Heart Association shows that coconut oil isn’t healthy at all.

The study ran seven trials reviewing which oils increased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol the most compared to one another. Coconut oil not only raised LDL in all seven trials, it raised LDL “significantly” in six of the trials.

The culprit? Saturated fat. When you look at the fatty acid composition of coconut oil, 82 percent of it is saturated fat, which far exceeds butter (63 percent), beef fat (50 percent) and pork lard (39 percent).

“Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil,” the American Heart Association says in the Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease Advisory.

A recent survey reported that 72 percent of the American public rates the tropical oil as a “healthy food”, while only 37 percent of nutritionists rate it the same way. So we spoke with Brittney Bearden, sports nutritionist for Texas Health Sports Medicine, to give us some insight into the potential benefits and drawbacks of coconut oil.

 

Q: Explain saturated fat’s effect on the body and why coconut’s high concentration of saturated fat is so concerning. 

A: All sources of saturated fat have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol in your blood while unsaturated fat can help lower LDL cholesterol. Coconut oil is primarily comprised of saturated fat and is one of the few plant sources of saturated fat, as the majority of saturated fats are found in animal products. The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat intake to 5 percent to 6 percent of total calories, which would be about 13 grams of saturated fat a day for someone on a 2,000-calorie diet. Coconut oil contains roughly 11 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, so it’s important to be aware of coconut oil consumption as LDL cholesterol is a leading cause of atherosclerosis.

 

Q: Coconut has had such a huge health-related following for a few years now. Why do you think it started gaining popularity despite the fact that it’s not as healthy as many claim it to be? 

A: The disconnect between the American public opinion of “healthy food” and nutrition experts is often due to product marketing. While it can be used sparingly, relying more on unsaturated fats in cooking and in the diet and less on saturated fat is a heart-healthy decision.

 

Q: What are healthier, plant-based oils that people can use if they decide to reduce their use of coconut oil? 

A: While all fats contain some saturated fat, there are many liquid vegetable oils that are much lower in saturated fat than coconut oil. Canola oil and extra virgin olive oil are great options, because they are rich sources of heart-healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat.

 

Q: Are there any other drawbacks to coconut oil people should know about?

A: Coconut oil is a fat, so portion control is important since all fats are calorically dense because they provide nine calories per gram. Studies have also shown that the tropical oil raises LDL cholesterol levels more than other vegetable oils, but not as much as butter does.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consumption of less than 10 percent of calories per day from saturated fats, so coconut oil would fall into that category.

 

Q: Now that this new research is out, do you think there will be a shift away from the oil? 

A: It’s important for consumers to eat a balanced diet including whole grains, lean proteins, low-fat dairy, colorful fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats. While coconut oil can be incorporated into the diet as a fat source, it’s not the miracle food it’s often glorified to be.

Hopefully consumers will be more aware of their coconut oil consumption and limit their intake or replace it with polyunsaturated and monosaturated fat in the form of canola oil, olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados and fatty fish.

Interested in learning how coconut oil can benefit your beauty routine? Read “The Beauty of Coconut Oil.”

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