This week coconut oil filled the news with headlines like “Worse Than Lard: Researchers Warn Against Trendy Use of Coconut Oil” and “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy.” If you watch what you eat—and you probably do if you are reading this blog—you may be confused, because according to a survey conducted by the AHA, 72% of people think coconut oil is healthy. So what is the truth?
While many of the articles have suggested there is a new study about coconut oil that is not correct. What happened is that last week the AHA released a new Presidential Advisory on dietary fat and cardiovascular disease. The committee that wrote the report analyzed the literature on fat and heart disease and found that replacing dietary saturated fat with unsaturated fats could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease by 30%–similar to the risk reduction from taking statins! That’s because eating saturated fats leads to increases in LDL cholesterol. No big surprise here as this has been medical dogma for years.
The report goes on to discuss different sources of saturated fat, including coconut oil. Coconut oil contains a lot of saturated fat. In fact it’s 82% saturated fat, which is an even greater percentage than butter and lard. But that doesn’t mean its worse than butter and lard. What the AHA panel found is that the types of saturated fats in coconut oil can increase the bad LDL cholesterol (especially compared to olive oil), but they also note that in a head-to-head study butter increased LDL more than coconut oil. They also note that the fatty acids found in coconut oil not only increase LDL, but also the good HDL cholesterol. However, they discount this, because they find that evidence no longer supports increasing HDL decreases risk of cardiovascular disease.
One of the reasons people think coconut oil is healthy, is because it contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs have been shown in a small study to increase fat burning and enhance weight loss when part of a diet. Coconut oil is actually the biggest food source of these MCTs with about 63%. However, the MCTs that have been studied and have these positive effects make up only about 14% of the fatty acids in coconut oil.
Another reason people think coconut oil is healthy, is because studies of populations that use coconut as their main dietary fat, don’t find increased risk of heart disease in these societies. That is an intriguing result, but we can’t draw a definitive conclusion from these types of studies, as other factors may also play a role.
There also haven’t been any big studies looking at the risk of CVD and coconut oil consumption. There have been a few small international studies that have suggested a benefit or at least no additional risk, but these samples are also to small to draw a conclusion. It’s very possible that in the future we may find that the plant-based saturated fat found in coconuts is not quite as bad as we thought, just like we are starting to find with full-fat dairy, but until then we should stick with the evidence. Coconut oil is not a health food, but it’s not that bad either. Use it in moderation like you would any other saturated fat and remember despite the headlines, it appears to be better for you than butter.