As much fuss has been made over coconut oil in recent years, you’d think it’s the next best thing to sliced bread. For years coconut oil, a tropical oil, has been marketed as a health food. Low-carb, high-fat weight loss diets, including the keto diet have claimed it can help bust belly fat by inducing ketosis. Other unproven health claims of coconut oil include fighting heart disease, reducing risk of type 2 diabetes and even Alzheimer’s disease.
But where does the truth stand? Is it time for an oil change of ditching vegetable oils and switching to using coconut oil instead?
What is coconut oil?
Before you make any rash decisions, let’s learn what is coconut oil. Extracted from the flesh or “meat” of mature coconuts, coconut oil is made using machines that press the liquid from the “meat” of coconuts. The liquid extracted is coconut oil, composed of 92% saturated fat. Part of the exact composition of this 92% saturated fat is 49% lauric acid, 18% myristic acid and 9% palmitic acid. The saturated fat content of coconut oil is higher than other foods commonly associated with this type of fat – butter contains 63% saturated fat content, beef fat 50%, and pork lard 39%, all lower than coconut oil’s content of saturated fat.
Why is it important to know the saturated fat composition of coconut oil? Because of coconut oil’s claim to fame as a health food. This claim is from the misconception that coconut oil contains mostly medium-chain triglycerides, believed to have a neutral effect on blood LDL (bad) cholesterol levels.
However, foods high in saturated fat, like coconut oil, actually raise harmful LDL cholesterol increasing the risk of heart disease. The composition of the saturated fat found in coconut oil (lauric acid, myristic acid, and palmitic acid) were found to be hypercholesterolemic more than 50 years ago. Hypercholesterolemia is defined as elevated amounts of cholesterol in the blood, which cause cholesterol to excessively build up in arteries leading to coronary heart disease and other serious conditions.
The verdict on coconut oil? Use it sparingly to avoid going overboard on too much saturated fat. The Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting saturated fat to no more than 22 grams a day based on a 2000 calorie diet. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat.
Which oils are best for heart health?
Organizations such as the American Heart Association (AHA) caution people to reduce their saturated fat intake which would include highly saturated fats such as coconut oil. A 2020 meta-anaylsis published in the AHA’s peer-reviewed journal Circulation, found that coconut significantly increased LDL cholesterol by about 9% compared with nontropical vegetable oils. AHA has held the same position of saturated fats for more than 30 years.
Research shows that the healthiest types of fats are monounsaturated and polyunsaturated such as canola oil, peanut oil, and extra virgin olive oil. Their fat composition helps reduce LDL cholesterol levels which increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
Extra virgin olive oil is especially recommended for heart health. “Extra virgin” is the highest grade oil may receive meeting both chemical and sensory standards in order to be sold as extra virgin. The term, “extra virgin” also means that the oil is free of defects of flavor or odor. Extra virgin olive oil also has anti-inflammatory compounds helping lower blood pressure while increasing blood flow. Use olive oil in dressings for salads, cooking, sautéing, roasting, and grilling.
Other healthy oils to consider include the following:
- Canola oil – low in saturated fat and contains monounsaturated fats along with polyunsaturated fats.
- Flaxseed oil – High in omega-3 fatty acids but not as versatile as other oils.
- Avocado oil – Contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, beneficial for raising HDL (good) cholesterol while helping lower LDL cholesterol. Also is a good source of vitamin E, an antioxidant keeping blood vessels and skin healthy.
- Peanut oil – Has one of the highest monounsaturated fat contents among cooking oils.
- Walnut oil – Has a good composition of omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids
There is good reason to be cautious about using large amounts of coconut oil regularly especially if you have risk factors for heart disease. The best advice is to use it sparingly on occasion if at all. Also purchase unrefined coconut oil (sometimes labeled “virgin,” “extra virgin,” or “cold pressed’) as they likely are a healthier choice than refined versions. But again, use sparingly.
Otherwise, choose unsaturated plant oils, canola, flaxseed, avocado, peanut, and walnut, as your main oils the majority of the time.
Want the latest on food science?
Click here to download a sample chapter of Cheryl’s book, The Nourished Brain, and get a free printable meal-planning guide so you can start eating your way to a healthier brain today.