Harvard Health Letter

By the way, doctor: Is coconut oil healthful?

Q. I've read that organic coconut oil has health benefits. Could coconut oil improve lipid profiles if consumed every day?

A. I doubt that coconut oil has health benefits, especially beneficial effects on lipids, and I wouldn't recommend that you consume it regularly.

For years, fat was portrayed as unhealthful. That's not true. "Bad fats," such as saturated and trans fats, are bad for you, but "good fats" — monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats — actually have health benefits.

The black-hat fats are a problem because they tend to increase LDL cholesterol levels, which in turn raises the risk of developing atherosclerosis and the heart disease and strokes that follow. True, they also tend to increase HDL ("good") cholesterol, but not enough to compensate for the bad effects.

Dietary oils — canola, corn oil, and so on — are all forms of fat. But unlike most other oils made from plants, coconut oil, as well as palm oil, are high in saturated fat. Saturated fat comes in several varieties; coconut oil is rich in one called lauric acid. Some groups and self-proclaimed experts are hawking lauric acid as a wonder food that will boost your immune system, help you lose weight, fight cancer — you name it. Needless to say, the evidence is weak to nonexistent. A respected nutrition textbook on our shelves does refer to the possibility of it having modest cavity-fighting properties. By contrast, there's a great deal of evidence that, like other saturated fats, lauric acid increases LDL levels.

As with most dietary don'ts, there's no need to be a prohibitionist. If you want to enjoy an occasional piña colada or a Thai curry dish, go ahead. I do. Coconut milk and oil are delicious. Just don't kid yourself that they are good for you.

— Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D.Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Letter