Diet and Nutrition

Coconut oil: Use it or lose it?

Diet and Nutrition

Is coconut oil all it’s cracked up to be?

“Is coconut oil good for you?” We’ve been asked that question many times in our Dallas clinic since 2013.

Eating or drinking coconut oil is popular among health-conscious Texans and across the country. The promise of weight loss, decreased cholesterol, and other supposedly heart-healthy benefits has prompted more people to cook with coconut oil and add it to their daily coffee or smoothies.

But are the health benefits of coconut oil based on fact, or are the promises overstated? Let’s take a closer look at the facts about coconut oil’s use in our diet.

Is coconut oil a healthy fat?

Coconut oil is high in unhealthy saturated fat which, when consumed in excess, contributes to increased risk for heart disease. For people who are at risk for developing heart disease due to other risk factors (including obesity, high cholesterol, or tobacco use), consuming coconut oil is more of a health concern than a health benefit. And eating more saturated fat certainly won’t help you lose weight.

All fats and oils are a combination of unhealthy saturated fat and healthier polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. But of all the common oils, coconut oil has the highest saturated fat content.

For example, here’s how coconut oil compares to olive oil:

  • Coconut oil is 83 percent saturated fat, 2 percent polyunsaturated fat, and 6 percent monounsaturated fat.
  • Olive oil is only 14 percent saturated fat, 11 percent polyunsaturated fat, and 73 percent monounsaturated fat.

The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend replacing unhealthy saturated fat in the diet with healthy polyunsaturated fat to lower cardiovascular risk by reducing total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (bad cholesterol) levels in the blood.

The new guidelines also offer strong evidence to suggest that the risk for heart attacks and related deaths are reduced when saturated fats are replaced with more polyunsaturated fats, such as sunflower oil, than monounsaturated fats, such as olive oil. The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology also recommend choosing healthy fats over vegetable oils or tropical oils, including coconut oil.

Unique properties of coconut oil

While coconut oil contains high levels of saturated fat, it behaves differently in the body compared to saturated fats from other foods.

Saturated fat in coconut oil is chemically structured in medium-length chains, whereas the saturated fats found in beef and cheese, for example, are structured in longer chains. In coconut oil, saturated fat is more easily broken down, directly absorbed into the bloodstream, and transported quickly to the liver where it becomes readily available for energy production.

As a dietitian, I find the unique properties of coconut oil’s saturated fat interesting. That said, studies evaluating coconut oil’s full effect on heart disease risk are limited, at best:

  • One 2011 study evaluated the effects of a coconut-containing diet on homocysteine and other inflammatory markers.
  • Another 2011 study suggested that premenopausal women who consumed more coconut oil (as determined by food records) had higher levels of protective HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol) without an increase in LDL cholesterol than women who consumed less coconut oil.

While the results of these studies sound promising for coconut oil enthusiasts, many of the participants were young and at low risk for cardiovascular disease during the studies.

Even research with heart disease patients has been ambiguous as to the risks and benefits of consuming coconut oil. A 2012 study analyzed plaque buildup in patients who had undergone coronary artery bypass grafts and who consumed either coconut oil or sunflower oil as a dietary staple. The results indicated no substantial differences between the measurements of fatty acids in the plaque buildup of either group, and hence there was no firm conclusion on whether coconut oil affects heart disease risk.

My recommendation about coconut oil

At this time, there is simply not enough evidence to recommend that it’s heart-healthy to consume more coconut oil. That’s not to say that we must avoid coconut oil all the time. It has a great flavor, and it won’t hurt to use it sparingly.

However, I don’t recommend adding coconut oil to your daily coffee or smoothie because it contains so much saturated fat. If you’re looking for heart-protective benefits, choose oils, seeds, and nuts that are high in healthy fats:

High in polyunsaturated fat:

  • Sunflower oil and seeds
  • Corn, soybean, and cottonseed oils
  • Walnuts and pine nuts
  • Sesame seeds
  • Pumpkin seeds and flax seeds

High in monounsaturated fats:

  • Avocado
  • Olive oil
  • Canola oil
  • Peanut oil
  • Safflower oil

These foods are considered healthy fats, but remember: all things in moderation. For optimal heart health, talk to your health care provider about how much healthy fat to include in your diet, and make sure you’re getting enough fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, too.

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