Is there a place for coconut oil in a healthy diet?

Coconut oil has seen a surge in popularity in recent years due to many touted health benefits, ranging from reducing belly fat to strengthening the immune system, preventing heart disease, and staving off dementia. These claims are often backed by celebrity endorsements and bolstered by proponents of popular diets such as ketogenic and Paleo, with little support from scientific evidence. On the flip side, and further adding to the confusion, you also may have seen headlines calling out coconut oil as “pure poison,” implying that it shouldn’t be consumed at all. Given these contradictory claims, a question of much public and scientific interest is whether there is room for coconut oil in a healthy diet.

Bad fats, good fats

Coconut oil largely consists of saturated fat (80% to 90% of fat in coconut oil is saturated), making it solid at room temperature. Other sources of saturated fat include animal products such as meat and dairy, and other plant-based tropical oils such as palm oil. Consumption of saturated fat has long been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease due to its ability to raise harmful LDL cholesterol levels.

Unlike saturated fats, unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. They can improve blood cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation, among other cardiovascular benefits. Unsaturated fats are predominantly found in vegetable oils, nuts, seeds, and fish.

Guidelines advise limiting the type of fat found in coconut oil

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend consuming no more than 10% of total calories from saturated fat. And last year the American Heart Association (AHA) released a scientific advisory statement recommending the replacement of saturated fats in the diet, including coconut oil, with unsaturated fats. In their statement, the AHA cited and discussed a review of seven randomized controlled trials, in which coconut oil was found to raise LDL cholesterol levels.

The rationale behind the AHA recommendation is that consuming unsaturated fats in place of saturated fat will lower “bad” LDL cholesterol, and improve the ratio of total cholesterol to “good” HDL cholesterol, lowering the risk of heart disease. For those at risk of or who already have heart disease, the AHA advises no more than 6% of total calories from saturated fat, or about 13 grams based on a 2,000-calorie diet. One tablespoon of coconut oil comes close to that limit, with about 12 grams of saturated fat.

Health benefits of coconut oil may be exaggerated

With such salient evidence supporting the replacement of saturated fat, including coconut oil, with unsaturated fat for optimal cardiovascular health, where do the myriad health claims for coconut oil come from?

Many of the health claims for coconut oil are based on studies that used a special formulation of coconut oil made of 100% medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). This is not the coconut oil available on supermarket shelves. MCTs have a shorter chemical structure than other fats, and are quickly absorbed and metabolized by the body, which is thought to promote a feeling of fullness and prevent fat storage.

However, the coconut oil found on most supermarket shelves contains mostly lauric acid, which is absorbed and metabolized more slowly than MCT. As a result, the health benefits reported from specially constructed MCT coconut oil cannot be applied to regular coconut oil.

Interestingly, lauric acid itself has also been purported to have health benefits. While lauric acid has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol levels, it also raises HDL cholesterol levels, suggesting a potential heart-protective role of coconut oil. However, large epidemiological studies have failed to report protective associations between lauric acid and cardiovascular disease.

Findings from epidemiological studies that report low rates of cardiovascular disease among populations who consume coconut oil as part of their traditional diets (in India, the Philippines, and Polynesia, for example) have also been cited as support for the health benefits of coconut oil. However, in these studies many other characteristics of the participants, including background, dietary habits, and lifestyle, could explain the findings.

Coconut oil: neither superfood nor poison

Based on the current evidence, coconut oil is neither a superfood nor a poison. Rather, its role in the diet falls somewhere in between. Coconut oil has a unique flavor and is best consumed in small amounts, as a periodic alternative to other vegetable oils like olive or canola that are rich in unsaturated fat. This dietary choice should be made in the context of an overall healthy dietary pattern, and within the recommended limits for saturated fat intake.

Comments:

  1. Rod Hagen

    My suspicion is coconut oil is great in places where nutritional poverty causes people to die early (like India) because it provides calories. I suspect the reason it is bad in place like the US, Europe, wealthier places in SE Asia and Australia is that it is not calories that limit lifespan’s in such places. It is all the regular known “badies” for very long lifespans – i.e like the saturated fats in coconut oil. Horses for course. It may well stop you starving in parts of India, but it will probably kill you off early in places where less people starve to death..

  2. Rod Hagen

    An earlier article on the illusory benefits of coconut oil had respondents saying it was clearly wrong because the life expectancy in Goa and Kerala, where a lot of coconut oil was consumed , at between 70 and 74, was higher than for may other parts of India, and therefore Americans should consume it by the backload.

    Such commentators failed to mention that US life expectancy at the time was significantly HIGHER than in Kerala or Goa, and that in the coconut oil avoiders of Scandinavia, Singapore and Australia, for example, it was a full 10 to fifteen years longer still!

    Coconut oil fadists are condemned by their own figures. They indicate that it is a great product to consume in quantity if you want to die early!

  3. Lancastermom

    When I made the switch to following a paleo diet using only avocado and coconut oils, my good cholesterol went up 25 pts and my bad w,ent down. My dr asked what I did and I told him. I use coconut oil daily in my coffee and for baking and cooking.

    • Christine

      I would imagine the overall change in your diet had more of an impact on your cholesterol levels than which oils you used. Increasing fiber, decreasing refined sugars and losing weight all positively impact cholesterol levels.

    • Rod Hagen

      So, you “only” eat avocado and coconut oil? Yet you talk using coffee, baking and other cooking! All with just avocados??? Really?

  4. Michael

    I’m currently on my tight diet right now, and loose quite of weight because of careful planning of the diet. Finding lots of information online is indeed helpful in my diet program. Seriously, you can find lots of information everywhere on the web. I can get insight and information regarding my diet plan and overall health.

  5. Jean Sweezie

    Thanks for providing info on coconut oil that I feel comfortable with. Jean

  6. FIKR

    Now its confusing ……….. in India coconut oil used for lots of health benefits but some sees it as a poisonous food. Me also a user but now dont know what to do ?

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