Integrative Nutrition Blog

Is Coconut Oil Healthy?

July 6, 2017

Image via Shutterstock.

It’s hard to know what to believe about coconut oil. Over the years, it has vacillated between healthy and unhealthy based on various studies. In the 1990s, a report comparing the saturated fat in coconut oil to movie theater popcorn left people wondering if they should eat it. Then in recent years, coconut oil re-emerged as a superfood with claims it can improve digestion, moisturize skin, prevent cancer, and even help with weight loss. Now, coconut oil is being questioned again with an advisory from the American Heart Association saying it can put people at risk for heart disease.

The AHA cautions that coconut oil’s high saturated fat content can raise bad (LDL) cholesterol. The advisory analyzed over 100 published studies dating back as far as the 1950s and concluded that coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol in seven controlled trials. In fact, the advisory says coconut oil can raise LDL as much as butter, beef fat or palm oil.

Coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat, with one tablespoon containing more than 11 grams of saturated fat, according to the federal National Nutrient Database. Despite its nutritional makeup of mostly saturated fat, the general public seems to think much more favorably of coconut oil than scientists and nutritionists. A 2016 survey reported in The New York Times showed that 72% of the American public considers coconut oil a “healthy food,” compared with 37% of nutritionists, the AHA says in its advisory.   

Frank Sacks, M.D., lead author of another recent AHA advisory and professor of cardiovascular disease prevention in the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, says that scientific studies don’t back up the coconut oil health claims. He doesn’t know who is pushing the coconut oil agenda—but it’s not scientists, he says in an AHA news blog. Other experts, however, say virgin coconut oil’s saturated fats can be a good thing; for example they can help fight bacteria and parasites that cause indigestion, as this Wellness Today article points out. In addition, some argue that the fatty acids in coconut oil can actually prevent heart disease.

The bottom line is food studies are everywhere these days, and they can have conflicting conclusions. If you’re concerned about the saturated fat levels in coconut oil, you can choose to eat it in moderation and add more healthy fats to your diet.

The AHA suggests replacing saturated fats with healthier, polyunsaturated fats to lower cardiovascular risk and limiting saturated fat intake to less than 10 percent of daily calories. Oils with healthy fats include peanut, canola, sunflower, walnut and olive. You can also add nuts and avocadoes to your diet, as they are a great source of monounsaturated fats. Avocadoes have been known to help prevent metabolic syndrome—a combination of risk factors for heart disease, stroke and diabetes.

Do you cook with coconut oil? Share your thoughts on the news below!

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