Not a day goes by that I’m not asked about the latest and greatest health benefits of coconut oil. Due to its “good” saturated fat, coconut oil is being promoted as a cure-all for heart disease, weight gain, high LDL (bad) cholesterol, and Alzheimer’s disease (to name just a few). But is coconut oil and its powerful medicinal properties all that it’s touted to be?
Coconut oil is a saturated fat. These types of fats are generally concentrated in animal products, but are also present in tropical plant-based oils. Saturated fats can increase your LDLs (“bad” cholesterol) and increase your risk of atherosclerotic plaques, coronary artery disease, and stroke. That fact alone should be enough to put coconut oil on the “No Go” list of any healthy eating plan.
The Skinny on Sat Fat
Saturated fats are stable fats, that is, they’re not as sensitive to heat and light like other oils. That’s why they are solid at room temperature, can withstand high cooking temperatures, and have a long shelf life. Here’s how coconut oil compares with the other artery busters.
- Beef fat = 40% saturated fat
- Lard = 40%
- Butter = 64%
- Coconut oil = 92%
It’s All In the Acid
Not all saturated fats are created equal. Oils are made up of different types of fatty acids and in different percentages which impact how they react in your body. For example, chocolate contains 60% saturated fat. Stearic acid is its most common saturated fat which is why chocolate raises your LDLs significantly less than butter.
On the other hand, coconut oil contains about 65% of its saturated fats from lauric acid. The lauric acid may be what’s responsible for raising your HDLs (“good” cholesterol). But… don’t run out and buy a gallon of it just yet unless you plan on rubbing it on your skin!
Not Enough Data
Why has the coconut oil of the tropics gained so much traction over the olive oils of the Mediterranean? Remember, coconut oil may be trending on social media, but not necessarily in medicine. Much of the research examining the effects of coconut oil on cholesterol levels consist of short-term studies. Since saturated fats increase your bad cholesterol and coconut oil might raise your good cholesterol, coconut oil may end up having a neutral effect on your heart health. Data is still needed to determine if the benefit outweighs the harm.
Where Does the Oil Come From?
We get clear coconut water from the inside of the coconut, creamy coconut milk from the grated white meat inside of a mature coconut, and the oil from pressing the fat from the white meat.
More Calories Per Bite
Oils are the most calorie-dense food you can eat. In general, cooking oils have a whopping 120 calories per tablespoon, but at 130 calories, coconut oil contains even more calories per spoonful.
All Fats Are Not Equal
If you have heart disease or are at risk, the American Heart Association recommends that you limit your saturated fat intake to no more than 5-6% of your daily caloric intake. For example, if you consume 2,000 calories per day, you should eat no more than 100-120 calories or 11-13 grams of saturated fat.
If you eat just one tablespoon of coconut oil which is 92% saturated fat, you’ll be consuming 13 grams of saturated fat — your limit for the entire day. On the other hand, olive oil is only 8% saturated fat, so you won’t meet your saturated fat limit so quickly and can eat more foods that contain these fats.
The Bottom Line
Much of the research supports the long-term effects and benefits of olive oil and omega-3 fatty acids. With the variety of these oils available on the market today, coconut oil gets a thumbs down if you’re on a heart-healthy diet.
Fit Tip: Keep in mind that a lot of your food already contains fat, so control the amount of fat you add when cooking. Substitute fat-free (and low-sodium) chicken or vegetable broth for oil when sautéing vegetables and when baking, substitute applesauce, puréed prunes, ground flaxseed or chia seeds for part or all of the oil.