Coconut Oil: Friend or Foe?
Nutrition trends come and go, but it seems no one can make up their mind about coconut oil.
A Harvard professor recently caused an online frenzy when she called coconut oil “pure poison” in a viral video. Meanwhile people are using coconut oil in everything from smoothies to coffee. So is coconut oil good or bad for you?
First and foremost, coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat, which is a higher percentage than butter, beef fat and even lard. Too much saturated fat in the diet raises LDL (bad cholesterol) levels, which increases risk of heart disease. Therefore too much coconut oil in the diet is guaranteed to raise LDL, just like any other type of saturated fat.
But interestingly, coconut oil also raises HDL (good cholesterol) levels.
The American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to 5-6% of daily total calories, which is about 13 grams. One tablespoon of coconut oil has 11 grams of saturated fat. If 11 grams seems like a negligible amount to you, note that there’s 3.3 grams of saturated fat in 3 ounces of fried chicken.
There is a claim that coconut oil helps with weight loss because it’s a naturally rich source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are broken down more rapidly and metabolized at a faster rate than long-chain triglycerides. The theory is that this prevents fat storage. This claim for coconut oil refers to research that used a special formulation of coconut oil made of 100% MCTs, not the commercial coconut oil available on supermarket shelves. So the benefits reported from a specially constructed MCT coconut oil can’t be applied directly to commercial coconut oils that are available to us. Let’s also not forget that coconut is high in calories and is definitely not a freebie food that you can eat as much of as you want.
Coconut oil does have antioxidants that may help reduce the risk of disease, but there aren’t any long-term studies proving that coconut oil actually helps prevent disease. You’ll likely get a bigger antioxidant bang for your buck from vegetables, fruits and whole grains.
What does all this mean for you?
Coconut oil is neither a super-food or poison. There’s no reason to only eat coconut oil or avoid it completely. Coconut is a wonderful flavor and using it occasionally probably will not lead to harmful cardiovascular health outcomes. You should, however, keep in mind that coconut oil is NOT the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease, and should be consumed in moderation. You should keep all saturated fat intake within the dietary guideline recommendations and get most of your fat from unsaturated sources like olive oil, avocado and nuts, which both lower LDL *and* increase HDL.