There’s been a lot of hype recently regarding coconut oil — is it healthy or is it unhealthy? With so much conflicting nutrition information, it’s hard to decipher what’s actually true.
In recent years, coconut oil has gained popularity as a “healthy fat.” But new guidelines released by the American Heart Association have people questioning how healthy coconut oil really is.
Let’s start with the facts: Coconut oil is a saturated fat. To fully understand coconut oil, you have to first understand how saturated fats work and why they can be a problem. Saturated fats have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol, the bad kind of cholesterol, and also increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Current recommendations are to reduce saturated fat to 10 percent or less of your total daily intake, which is less than 22 grams per day for most people. That being said, coconut oil is mainly saturated fat — 82 percent in fact, which is actually higher than the saturated fat content of butter.
You’re probably thinking, so if it has more saturated fat than butter, why has coconut oil been praised as healthy?
Coconut oil gained popularity based on its lauric acid content and medium chain fatty acids (MCFA’s). Lauric acid is a fatty acid component which has been found to not raise LDL cholesterol as much as myristic or palmitic acid does. It also slightly increases HDL cholesterol (good cholesterol). The slight improvement in the HDL to LDL cholesterol ratio is where the hype surrounding coconut oil and cardiovascular disease came about.
However, these results were not seen across the board. Due to the risk of increasing your LDL (bad) cholesterol level with coconut oil and in turn increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease, the American Heart Association Advisory Board recommends limiting your intake.
Although some research shows that coconut oil increases HDL (good) cholesterol, recent clinical research is questioning whether looking at this parameter is even accurate. Recent trials have failed to show HDL modulators having any benefit in reducing risk of cardiovascular disease. We also have to keep in mind that a majority of the research surrounding coconut oil does not involve long-term studies.
As a registered dietitian, my recommendation is to make sure your daily saturated fat is 10 percent or less of your total daily intake. However, when we cut out saturated fats, we have to be careful. We want to replace those saturated fats with unsaturated fats — more specifically, polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) — rather than with refined carbohydrates and sugar.
To put this in perspective, say you have a saturated fat in the form of one cup of plain, whole milk yogurt at 149 calories and 26 percent saturated fat (5.1 grams). To replace the cup of yogurt, you have a few options: You can eat a fat-free cookie (refined carbohydrate and sugar) or one cup of white rice (refined carbohydrate) at the same calorie amount but zero percent saturated fat. With either of these options, there would be no reduction in your risk of cardiovascular disease due to the sugar and refined carbohydrates, despite the lack of saturated fat. However, if you replace the high saturated fat yogurt with oatmeal, which is high in fiber, or walnuts, high in PUFAs, your risk of cardiovascular disease is reduced by 9 percent and 25 percent, respectively. It’s all about the daily decisions you make.
All in all, if coconut oil is part of your diet, it’s important to evaluate your daily saturated fat intake. Your saturated fat intake should be below 10 percent. If you’re consuming foods high in fiber from whole grains, fruits, vegetables and beans/legumes, and increasing your intake of polyunsaturated fats from foods like walnuts, almonds, avocado, olive oil, avocado oil and salmon or tuna, then you’re doing your part to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease.