Coconut oil has recently gained enormous popularity and has even been touted as the healthiest cooking oil. Proponents of coconut oil as the primary fat in the diet often believe that it holds some miraculous power to prevent or cure all sorts of ailments, including ridding the body of kidney stones, assisting with weight loss, reducing cholesterol levels, bolstering immunity, decreasing inflammation and shielding your body from cancer, thyroid disorders and heart disease. With so many reported benefits, should we all be switching over to the cure-all coconut oil? The evidence--or better yet, lack thereof--points to no.
What Does the Science Show?
There is little evidence to support these health-benefit claims, and most purported beneficial properties attributed to coconut oil seem to be more anecdotal in nature, rather than based on scientific research. In fact, physicians and researchers well-versed on the topic report that there is hardly any evidence regarding coconut oil and actual disease outcomes. The only thing that has been studied extensively is coconut oil's impact on blood cholesterol levels, and the findings thus far don't show a clear-cut answer of whether it's advantageous or detrimental.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA) and the latest United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dietary Guidelines for Americans, coconut oil is not any healthier for us than other forms of saturated fat in our diets. Actually, both organizations recommend limiting all forms of saturated fats (including coconut oil) to seven to ten percent of total daily calories because saturated fat may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Breaking Down Coconut Oil
Pure virgin coconut oil, which comes from the dried fruit of the coconut palm tree, contains a blend of fatty acids, as do all oils. It's made up of 92 percent saturated fat, which is the highest amount of saturated fat of all the oils. However, coconut oil contains a unique blend of short- and medium-chain fatty acids, which some studies suggest aren't stored in our fat cells to the same degree as long-chain fatty acids (plentiful in most American diets).
While it does contain some beneficial fatty acids (namely, myristic acid), it contains more heart-damaging fats (lauric acid). A meta-analysis that compiled results from 60 studies looking at the role of individual fats in heart disease found that although coconut oil's fatty acids improved the total cholesterol ratio by raising HDL cholesterol (your good fat), it also raised LDL cholesterol (your bad fat). Experts warn that any food that raises LDL cholesterol should be restricted because LDL cholesterol is the cardinal target therapy for cardiovascular disease.
The Bottom Line
When thinking about your ticker, using coconut oil is definitely better than using butter and forms of trans-fat (partially hydrogenated oils), but experts agree that other liquid vegetable oils are your best bet. Feel free to enjoy coconut oil sparingly as long as you don't replace your proven-healthy vegetable oils (such as canola and olive oil) with it.
Because coconut oil is plant-based, it may house certain health-promoting phytochemicals that we haven't yet discovered. The research is still in its infancy, and more studies on coconut oil are warranted. Researchers and the public alike look forward to unveiling more information about coconut oil. As always, instead of focusing on specific nutrients, concentrate on your overall dietary pattern--one that's rich in whole foods and is portion-controlled.
Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. If you would be interested in working with Kari one-on-one, sign-up for FitDay Dietitian.