Coconut oil has been highly sought after in recent years because its medium chain fatty acids are thought to increase metabolism and aid in weight loss. The oil is also credited with helping with digestion, balancing hormones, balancing blood sugar, and the list goes on. Not to mention that it’s a great vegan source of fat. It’s also great for baking, frying, sautéing, and everything in between. For many cooks, it’s an essential addition to their pantry. But now, the American Heart Association (AHA) is questioning whether coconut oil is beneficial to your health in the first place, leaving many of us wondering whether this health trend is about to deflate.
What AHA Says About Coconut Oil
AHA recently stated that coconut oil contained more saturated fat than lard. And more importantly, the AHA Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory board found that in seven out of seven trials coconut oil raised LDL also known as “bad” cholesterol, which according the AHA, also increases your risk of cardiovascular disease. The study found that coconut oil contained 82 grams of saturated fats, among the highest of any of the oils tested. For comparison, butter contained 63 grams of saturated fat and lard contained 39 grams. At the other end of the spectrum, olive oil contained 14 grams of saturated fats and canola oil contained 7 grams. The authors of the study also noted that “the 7 trials did not find a difference in raising LDL cholesterol between coconut oil and other oils high in saturated fat such as butter, beef fat, or palm oil.”
What’s more, researchers found that much of our fondness for coconut oil and its so-called health benefits were mostly to do with false hype. They noted in their study that “[a] recent survey reported that 72 percent of the American public rated coconut oil as a 'healthy food' compared with 37 percent of nutritionists. This disconnect between lay and expert opinion can be attributed to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press.”
The Caveats of Coconut Oil Research
One of the reasons coconut oil has gotten so much hype is due to research done by Marie-Pierre St-Onge, an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University Medical Center, and others who found that medium chain fatty acids increased metabolism and made it easier for study participants to lose weight. During one 28-day trial in St-Onge’s lab, researchers found that overweight men and women that consumed more medium chain fatty acids lost more weight on average. The problem is that in St-Onge’s study, researchers used fats that contained 100 percent medium chain fatty acids, while coconut oil on its own contains only about 13 percent medium chain fatty acids. So while we know that medium chain fatty acids are good for losing weight, we don’t know if coconut oil on its own is as effective. However, according to Dr. Partha Nandi, host of the syndicated television show, "Ask Dr. Nandi," and author of the forthcoming book "Ask Dr. Nandi: 5 Steps to Becoming Your Own Health Hero for Longevity, Well-Being, and a Joyful Life," coconut oil is still better for fat burning than other oils.
"When compared to the long chain triglycerides in vegetable oil, dairy, and meat, the triglycerides in coconut oil are more likely to be burned for energy than turned into fat storage," says Dr. Nandi.
The other major concern is whether saturated fat really is bad for you. A study published in the 2015 British Medical Review found that if you want to reduce your risk of heart disease, then it depends how you fill the void once you remove saturated fats. For example, if you cut out butter and lard and replace it with sugar and other white carbohydrates, you’re not doing yourself any favors. However, if you replaced saturated fats with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats like olive oil and safflower oil then it could reduce your risk of heart disease. The bottom line is that not everyone agrees about saturated fats and their link to heart disease.
What This Means to You
AHA isn’t a fan of coconut oil and made this clear in the recent statements on the subject. Frank Sacks, lead author on the report, said in an article in USA Today “that he has no idea why people think coconut oil is healthy. It's almost 100 percent fat.” But others like Dr. Will Cole, a functional medicine practitioner and health and wellness expert, sing its praises.
"Your brain stores 25 percent of your body's total cholesterol [found in coconut oil] which is just as essential as fat for optimal brain health. There have been many studies showing no link between total cholesterol and heart disease risk," says Dr. Cole. "However, you do run into issues when you combine saturated fats with refined grains, sugars, and processed foods. This saturated fat-carb combination creates a sort of atomic bomb of inflammation which could then contribute to heart disease and other health issues."
And according to Grace Derocha, a registered dietitian and wellness coach at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, coconut itself has other health benefits.
"The meat of the coconut is high in fiber and manganese, but also high in calories and fat," says Derocha. And she says that the average American doesn't get nearly enough fiber (just 10 grams daily when the RDA is between 25 and 40 grams). One cup of coconut meat contains 7.2 grams of fiber as well as manganese, a mineral that helps the body metabolize fat and protein.
What's more, organic extra virgin coconut oil, like organic butter, is often less processed than vegetable oils. So while vegetable oils may contain less saturated fats, they also contain the remnants of rather intense chemical processing.
“It’s not the oil itself that’s the problem, it’s that when you refine the oil it creates molecules that weren’t there initially and some of the molecules formed can cause oxidative stress,” says Dr. Catherine Shanahan, author of the new book "Deep Nutrition."
“During processing other carcinogens like solvents and deodorants are also added to the final product," says Shanahan.
The verdict is still out as to what fat source is best. But I wouldn’t throw out my jar of coconut oil just yet. If you have heart disease or a family history of it, you should be particularly wary of using coconut oil too often because it has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol. But at the same time, healthy fats are essential for the proper functioning of the entire body. If you love coconut oil, use it in moderation. And of course, it’s still fabulous to use as a moisturizer on your skin or hair. But it shouldn’t be the only fat you use to cook with in your pantry.