Many health specialists tout coconut oil as a “miracle” food, while others caution against it as something to be avoided. What is the bottom line when it comes to coconut oil? We looked at the science and asked a dietician to get the real scoop.
Coconut oil seems to be everywhere we turn these days.
Imparting a light, sweet, coconut flavor, coconut oil is used as a dairy-free substitute for butter during cooking, and makes an appearance in a variety of baked goods, desserts, coffees, smoothies, and even in our showers within shampoos.
From celebrities to social media influencers to doctors, coconut oil has been boldly claimed as a “miracle” food to achieve a laundry list of health-promoting benefits.
But not everyone is sold on the advantages coconut oil enthusiasts claim. In fact, many in the health industry are downright convinced that coconut oil should be avoided.
In the face of these conflicting messages, what is a confused consumer to do? Delving into what the research has to say will help us get to the bottom of whether coconut oil should be a regular part of our healthy eating lifestyle, or whether it should only be eaten sparingly.
Understanding the fats: saturated vs. unsaturated
Saturated fat is also found in meat and dairy products, and eating too much of it is widely thought dangerous for its potential to cause cardiovascular disease by raising harmful LDL cholesterol levels.
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are mainly found in plant foods like avocados, nuts, seeds, and olive and canola oils, and are considered “healthy” fats because of their ability to improve cholesterol, lower inflammation, and boost heart health in other ways.
Coconut oil’s many proclaimed health benefits
The other side: what is concerning about coconut oil health claims?
While these health perks all sound promising, some researchers are quick to point out that many of the studies these claims rely on are actually small, short-term, reveal conflicting results, and are based on animals.
In other words, there is simply not enough evidence to justify recommending people to switch to coconut oil for health purposes.
Also, many of the studies the health claims are based on the use of a special preparation of coconut oil made of 100% medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are not the kinds of fats readily available on our grocery store shelves.
MCTs has its own unique chemical structure and is metabolized differently and absorbed more quickly in the body than lauric acid, the type of fat found in most commercial coconut oils, making these health claims largely irrelevant for the everyday consumer.
What is most concerning, though, is that coconut oil appears to actually raise our risk for cardiovascular disease after all.
A 2020 study conducted by the American Heart Association reviewed 16 prior trials looking at coconut oil’s effect on cardiovascular risk, and found that coconut oil significantly increased LDL cholesterol when compared with the use of other vegetable oils, and had no benefit for blood sugar and weight control.
For these reasons, the American Heart Association advises that saturated fat, including those in coconut oil, should make up less than 10% of your total daily calories if you are healthy.
If you already have heart disease, you should limit your daily saturated fat calories to no more than 6%. This translates to 13g of saturated fat per day based on a 2,000-calorie diet, and one tablespoon of coconut oil clocks in at 12g.
Ask the expert: can coconut oil be enjoyed within a healthy diet?
Margarete Collins, registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Loma Linda University Diabetes Treatment Center, weighs in: "Saturated fats have been implicated in the development of several chronic diseases, including heart disease, which is the top leading cause of death in the U.S. With coconut oil being the oil that has the highest saturated fat content of all cooking oils, I only feel comfortable with placing it on the list of foods to be avoided. For those who love coconut flavor, one way to incorporate it into a healthy diet is to occasionally use a small amount of coconut milk or shredded coconut, as they are five times less concentrated in saturated fat than coconut oil when comparing similar serving sizes."