If you’ve been paying attention to your newsfeed the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed coconut oil in the spotlight, receiving even more attention than usual. This comes on the heels of the American Heart Association’s (AHA) release of its presidential science advisory.1
This 25-page report covered dietary fats and heart health, yet it seems like the following sentence stood out: “However, because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we [AHA] advise against the use of coconut oil.”
Considering 3 out of 4 people perceive coconut as “healthy”—with some hailing it as a “miracle”—it’s no surprise pandemonium ensued.2
News outlets struck while the iron was hot, running with eye-catching headlines, like, “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy.” While nutrition gurus came to the defense of their darling health food, slashing back with figurative swords of science (mostly).
So, is coconut oil good for you?
Is Saturated Fat Really the “Bad” Guy?
The AHA sticks to its long-standing advice to lower saturated fat intake. Opting instead to swap it with polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Coconut oil is made up of over 90% saturated fats. Fats traditionally considered to be “unhealthy” as some evidence from observational studies suggested a link between higher intakes of saturated fat and heart disease.3
Fortunately, more recent research has helped pull us out of the deep, archaic rut that fat—particularly saturated fat—is “bad.” It’s now well-established and widely accepted that saturated fat is not associated with heart-related issues and other adverse health outcomes.4
Want to hear something even more interesting?
Recent well-controlled review studies have provided evidence contrary to the AHA’s long-standing guidance to substitute polyunsaturated fats for saturated fats. (That is, use margarine instead of butter.) In a review of well-controlled, randomized trials, for instance, Dr. Steven Hamley found replacing saturated fats with mostly polyunsaturated fats is “unlikely to reduce CHD [coronary heart disease] events, CHD mortality, or total mortality.”5
Even more compelling is a recent study published in The British Medical Journal. Australia researchers found the 60-year-old dietary guidance to swap vegetable oils for saturated fats increased the rates of death from all causes, CHD, and cardiovascular disease.7
In another recently-published review study, researchers highlighted the important point that advice to reduce saturated fat intake has led to increased consumption of refined carbohydrates. This leads to even more unfavorable changes in cholesterol, increasing the risk of CHD.6
These diets also led to a host of metabolic disturbances, including poor carbohydrate tolerance and reduced insulin sensitivity. Researchers concluded that increased intake of refined carbs and added sugars is more harmful than saturated fat, and “dietary guidelines should shift focus away from reducing saturated fat…and guidelines should focus particularly on reducing intake of concentrated sugars…and ultra-processed foods and beverages.”
What seems to be problematic is when overconsumption of saturated fat is combined with: 1. Excess intake of omega-6 fats (which run rampant in vegetable oils) and a reduced intake of omega-3 fats; and 2. A diet high in carbohydrates, particularly highly refined, ultra-processed carbs. If you think this sounds anything like the typical Western-style diet (also called the Standard American Diet), you’d be right.
In other words, coconut oil and other foods containing saturated fat aren’t so much a problem on their own. Rather, they become problematic in the context of the typical eating habits of the average person (i.e., Standard American Diet).
The LDL Scapegoat
The AHA bases its recommendation to nix coconut oil based on evidence that it increases LDL cholesterol. Although overall evidence is mixed, there is some research showing coconut oil raises LDL, or the so-called “bad,” cholesterol.8 But is this really a bad thing?
There’s no question levels of total and LDL cholesterol are well-established risk factors for heart disease.9,10 However, when it comes to metrics of cardiovascular health, it’s important to take a look at the complete picture—not just one piece of the puzzle.
While most of us have been trained to believe total and LDL cholesterol are the be-all, end-all markers of cardiovascular wellness, science is opening our eyes to other—arguably more important—factors.
For example, small, dense LDL particles are considered more detrimental than large, fluffy LDL particles.11 Simply knowing how much LDL you have doesn’t tell you about the size of the particles. Even then, there may even be more important variables that can provide insight into heart health and risk.
Even the American Heart Association “urges all Americans to have their physicians determine their total and HDL ["good”] blood cholesterol levels.” The optimum cholesterol ratio (obtained by dividing the HDL cholesterol level into the total cholesterol) is 3.5:1.
While few studies have reported this ratio, one study showed coconut oil indeed lowered the cholesterol ratio, which is a good thing.8 And speaking generally, the saturated fats in coconut oil (e.g., lauric acid) increase HDL to a greater extent than LDL, resulting in a more favorable cholesterol profile.4
In addition, there is now more emphasis on looking at non-HDL cholesterol, including very low density lipoproteins (VLDL) and Apo-B.12 Apo-B is considered by some to be a better predictor of cardiovascular risk.13 In addition, C-reactive protein (CRP), homocysteine, and triglycerides are other blood variables often considered when painting the complete picture of cardiovascular wellness.
Adding to the confusion is that some of the past studies showing coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol used hydrogenated oils, which are the major dietary source of trans fats. Trans fats not only raise LDL cholesterol, they lower HDL cholesterol.14 The Institute of Medicine goes so far as to say any intake of trans fats increases one’s risk for heart disease.15 Virgin coconut oil, on the other hand, does not contain trans fats.
Overall, the evidence that coconut oil increases LDL is inconsistent. While there is some research showing it does increase LDL, that is muddied by the use of oils containing trans fats. Even more, LDL is only one piece of the heart health puzzle, and it’s neither complete nor the most important. Taken together, it seems like a stretch to oust coconut oil based on this claim alone.
So, while coconut oil may not deserve to be demonized, ridiculed, or eradicated, we also have to revisit the following question.
Does Coconut Oil Deserve the Halo?
The AHA posits that coconut oil has no beneficial health effects. However, many in the nutrition world have crowned coconut oil with a figurative halo. Proponents are quick to tout a list of benefits. But how accurate are they?
For starters, many backers cite the evidence that countries with high intakes of tropical oils, such as coconut oil, have some of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world.4 It’s both an interesting and ironic argument. In the case of the latter, we (yes, I’m included) are often quick to reject findings from observational studies that provide correlational evidence (instead of causation). This stems in large part from the media’s extrapolation of such research. However, it’s still a relevant point.
Having said that, others have argued that the more favorable cholesterol profiles and lower death rates observed in coconut-consuming populations are due to the foods that make up the rest of their diets. For instance, folks from the islands of Tokelau and Pukapuka traditionally ate no processed foods and consumed a diet high in fruits, vegetables, and fish. This is in stark contrast to the addition of coconut oil to the typical Western diet with its high concentration of processed foods (and far fewer fruits and vegetables).8
In other words, including coconut oil as part of a whole-foods-based diet is probably not a problem. However, coconut oil is unlikely to be a band-aid for an otherwise crappy diet rife with processed foods.
The most highly touted benefits of coconut oil relate to its relatively high proportion of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). These have been shown to have some pretty unique and fascinating benefits, such as boosting metabolic rate, increasing fat burning, decreasing appetite, reducing body weight and belly fat, improving markers of metabolic health (including cholesterol), and improving insulin sensitivity.15
Because it contains MCTs, many (myself included) have taken the liberty to extrapolate these benefits to coconut oil. The reality, however, is coconut oil contains only about 16% of these MCTs (e.g., caprylic acid and capric acid). You see, about 50% of the fat in coconut oil is lauric acid. While lauric acid can technically be classified as an MCT, a combination of caprylic acid and capric acid seem to be responsible for the benefits typically associated with MCTs.8,16
In other words, coconut oil is not synonymous with MCTs (even though commercially-available MCT oils and powders are typically made from coconut and/or palm oils). And it’s not accurate to equate the benefits of the latter to coconut oil. For example, to get the metabolism-boosting benefits of MCTs from coconut oil, you’d probably have to consume about 8 tablespoons of coconut oil. Obviously, the sheer number of calories would more than cancel out any potential benefits.
That being said, let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are other benefits to lauric acid. For one, we already talked about the potential effect it has on the cholesterol ratio and HDL cholesterol. Additionally, lauric acid has powerful antimicrobial (e.g., antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral) properties.17,18 In other words, it can help kill off pathogenic bacteria, fungi (e.g., yeasts), and viruses.
Interestingly, lauric acid can help prevent tooth decay and plaque buildup. Along these lines, it is not uncommon for people to rinse their mouths with coconut oil (a practice known as oil pulling).4
Thanks in large part to its lauric acid content, coconut oil is a great choice for cooking (but not at high heats, such as deep-frying). You see, saturated fats are the most stable type of fat when exposed to heat. On the other hand, vegetable oils rich in polyunsaturated fats (yes, those same oils the AHA recommends you use) are very unstable. And when heated, they are highly susceptible to oxidation, which results in the production of free radicals, harmful compounds, and rancidification, which results in an unpleasant smell and taste.
So, Is Coconut Oil Good For You?
Hopefully you’ve come away with a few take-home points here. In fact, I’d love to hear what you think. And if you disagree, that’s okay. Overall, I don’t think you need to eliminate coconut oil—and other foods containing saturated fat (such as butter and cream). As long as you’re eating a fairly balanced whole-food-based diet.
However, if you’re like the average American who’s eating predominantly highly refined, ultra-processed, packaged “foods,” you’d be well-advised to watch your saturated fat intake (including coconut oil) and consider making some adjustments to your diet. If you value your health, that is. Along those lines, coconut oil is not a band-aid, a miracle, or a panacea either.