Is Coconut Oil healthy?

By:  Jackie Ahern, Nutrition Peer Counselor, UC Davis Fitness and Wellness Center

coconut-oil-coconuts

This is what a simple Google search says:

“Yes, Coconut Oil is Still Healthy. It’s Always Been Healthy”

“Coconut Oil Isn’t Healthy. It’s Never Been Healthy”

…and the AHA directly says: “We advise against the use of coconut oil.”

So what’s going on? Should you buy island paradise in a glass jar or not? Let me break it down.

Fat.

I’d like to clear up some misconceptions around fat. For many people this word brings about bad feelings and has been misunderstood for a long time. The reality is that we need fat, it’s an important part of our diet and serves our body many purposes, from keeping us warm, to storing certain vitamins, and holding the very shape of our cells. The USDA recommends we eat 30% of our daily calories from fat, which is 50 to 80 grams depending on your caloric goals. That’s like 8 tablespoons of peanut butter, or 5 tablespoons of olive oil a day for someone eating a 2000 calorie diet. However, not all fat is created equal, so the USDA recommends that less than 10% of total calories should come from saturated fat. Primary sources of saturated fat are non-lean meats, high fat dairy, palm oil, butter and… coconut oil.

Saturated vs Unsaturated Fat

The USDA has made is clear that we should be eating less of saturated fat and more of unsaturated fat instead. Why? Because it has been shown that diets higher in saturated fat lead to higher levels of “bad” cholesterol that increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.1 While coconut oil is natural, plant based and often marketed as organic, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s completely healthy to consume.

Science Speaks.

The AHA released an Advisory on Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease this year with a specific section dedicated to the investigation of coconut oil on cardiovascular health. This review of numerous studies brought to light two important points:

  1. The consumption of coconut oil, which is primarily composed of saturated fat, raises LDL significantly more than that of unsaturated fats such as olive or safflower oil.1
  2. One study showed that there was no “difference in raising LDL cholesterol between coconut oil and other oils high in saturated fat such as butter, beef fat, or palm oil.” In other words, coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol as much as other saturated fats.1

But I Heard…

One of the main arguments supporting the “perks” of coconut oil is that compared to other saturated fat sources, it has a higher concentration of medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs. Because of their structure, they are digested differently by the body than regular fat.2 One source even claims that “MCTs cannot make you fat!” The reality is that if a person consumes more calories than they burn, they will gain weight; however when consumed as a direct caloric substitution, studies have shown that the consumption of MCTs over other fats can lead to weight loss due to an increase in energy expenditure.3 That said, if someone is really looking to lose weight, a change in diet and exercise will be more effective than simply switching out butter or olive oil for coconut oil.

The Verdict.

You don’t have to cut coconut oil completely out of your diet, just treat it as you would any other saturated fat, like butter or animal fat. It’s certainly a great vegan alternative for other saturated fats. Because coconut oil is around 60% MCTs, it could potentially exhibit the beneficial effects of MCTs; however per the USDA guidelines no more than 10% of total calories should come from saturated fats like coconut oil due to the cardiovascular health consequences. Mix up your intake with other delicious and nutritious unsaturated fats like olive oil, avocado, walnuts, salmon and nut butters. Moderation and balance is key! (Click here for an awesome list and explanation of different kinds of fats!)

Have a bunch of coconut oil that you don’t know what to do with? I love to use it everywhere from my hair to my skin! Check out these uses for coconut oil other than cooking.

Additional Questions? Concerns?

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Sources

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28620111
  2. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/132/3/329.full
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12634436

List of fats:https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/types-of-fat/

Uses for coconut oil:https://www.prevention.com/beauty/coconut-oil-cures-for-your-skin-and-hair

 

 

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