Choose Your Coconut Oil Wisely

A report from the American Heart Association recently advised against using coconut oil, stating “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”

I am pretty sure that coconut oil almost broke the internet. Every health food blogger out there is adding it to recipes, and making claims of its incredible benefits for basically everything: skin, hair, waistline, heart health, and the list goes on and on. AHA blames marketing of coconut oil in the “popular press” for the false assumption that it is healthy. One study found 72 percent of Americans consider it healthy, but only 37 percent of nutritionists do.

What’s in coconut oil?

Extracted from the meat of the fruit. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, the types of fat found solid at room temperature, like butter. Like other saturated fats, coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, the “bad” cholesterol associated with increased risk of heart disease. But coconut oil does raise HDL, the “good” cholesterol. Probably due to its high content of a fatty acid called lauric acid. Coconut oil is half lauric acid, as the acid seems to raise HDL more than other saturated fats and coconut oil has an abnormally high percentage compared to most foods.  

The problem is there are many types of HDL cholesterol; some will help lower LDL cholesterol by attaching to LDL cholesterol and removing it from the bloodstream, but others do not. Until all the types of HDL cholesterols are studied, we cannot say that coconut oil contains the HDL cholesterol that helps lower LDL cholesterol.

Still, though the increase in HDL seen with consumption of coconut oil may offset some of the disease risks, it’s still not as good as consuming unsaturated oils, which not only raise HDL but lower LDL. And while it’s true that an elevated LDL level is only a risk factor for heart disease and doesn’t always translate to heart attacks, it’s still is a warning sign for negative health events.

There is early research that suggests the increase in LDL cholesterol may be lower from extra virgin coconut oil instead of refined coconut oil. We will have to wait and see what the long-term studies find.

Coconut oil and weight loss

We have all seen the buzz on the internet about replacing all your fats with coconut oil and how it will blast your belly fat. Some research suggests that coconut oil may be helpful in reducing belly fat, at least in the short term. One study found that coconut oil resulted in a reduced waist circumference compared with soybean oil. However, it is important to note that participants also consumed a lot more fiber, followed a low-calorie diet and walked for about an hour each day. When reading these journal article, it is important to not jump to conclusions that coconut oil will reduce belly fat. Just that coconut oil was more successful than soybean oil, along with a low calorie, high fiber diet, and regular physical exercise.

Other research has touted benefits such as increased metabolism, reduced appetite or improved cognitive function associated with fats known as MCTs, or medium chain triglycerides, which are present in coconut oil. Hopefully, there will be more long-term studies on the impact of coconut oil on health to determine if these benefits outweigh the impact these oils can make on blood lipids.

Just because it is “healthy” doesn’t mean it doesn’t have calories

Like other oils, coconut oil is calorie-dense, which means consuming large amounts without reducing other calorie sources can lead to weight gain. Just one tablespoon has 120 calories, about the same as a tablespoon of butter. It is easy to lose track of how many oils have been added to your meal because you can’t see them.

It’s not that you have to avoid coconut oil but use coconut oil in recipes that call for its distinctive flavor, like curries or stir-fries.  But for day-to-day choose vegetable oils such as olive, canola or soybean oil, along with nuts and seeds. These poly and monounsaturated fats have positive effects on blood cholesterol, and multiple long-term studies correlate eating a diet that fats are primarily of poly and monounsaturated fats and a reduced risk of heart disease.

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