Today I’m tackling the confusion surrounding coconut oil. Online sources have left many of us believing it’s healthy, but what does current research say? To clarify any confusion or to learn more, keep reading!
What are the different types of fat?
Before we delve into coconut oil specifically, lets talk about fats. Fats are one of three macronutrients (macros) that are found in the foods we eat. All together, fats, carbohydrates and proteins are what we consider to be the “building blocks of food”.
Fats typically fall into one of two categories – saturated and unsaturated fats. Within these two categories there are other sub-groups including monounsaturated, polyunsaturated and trans fats. Fats play an essential role in our bodies by creating adipose tissue that surrounds and protects our internal organs, it allows us to maintain our internal body temperature and create the protective barrier surrounding every cell in our body. Pretty incredible.
So what’s the deal with coconut oil?
Coconut oil is a saturated fat, meaning that it’s a solid at room temperature. Other saturated fats include butter, lard, shortening, etc. Current research surrounding saturated fats has shown that they can increase what we call “bad cholesterol” or LDL cholesterol in our bodies.
If you ever go for blood work and your doctor wants to “check your lipids” they’re likely looking at things like your total cholesterol, LDL, HDL and triglycerides. These lipids, along with other risk factors like high blood pressure, BMI and exercise, are predictors of your risk for a heart attack or stroke.
Why is LDL cholesterol “bad”?
LDL cholesterol is considered bad because it is responsible for taking cholesterol in our body and depositing it at our veins and arteries. When this cholesterol ends up in those places, vessels become narrower over time and what we call atherosclerotic. Narrowing of your veins and arteries makes it more difficult for your heart to pump blood throughout your body and can eventually cut off blood flow all together. If this blocks blood flow to the heart, the result is a heart attack. If blood flow to the brain is cut off? A stroke.
What about claims that say coconut oil is healthy?
Claims surrounding the benefits of coconut oil focus on this oil’s ability to increase HDL cholesterol. HDL cholesterol is what we call the “good cholesterol”. HDL is able to counteract bad cholesterol’s effect by bringing cholesterol back to the liver that was previously left at the veins and arteries. This reverse cholesterol transport helps to prevent arteries from becoming narrow and occluded. However, recent studies have not shown that coconut oil consumption consistently increases HDL. Meaning, that in terms of reducing risk for a heart attack or stroke, the benefit of coconut oil is modest at best.
Although coconut oil doesn’t increase this good cholesterol, there are other ways to increase HDL and decrease your risk for heart disease including…
- Eating foods high in omega-3 fatty acids = fish, nuts, seeds, etc.
- Regular exercise 2-3 times/week
Some articles show that communities that use coconut oil regularly live longer. The problem with this type of blanket statement, is that health in communities is a combination of factors and not driven by just one food. It’s likely that in these communities, their lifestyles look different than that of American’s. It’s important to consider – how do they know that longevity is solely driven by coconut oil use? Are there other healthy habits that drive longevity in these communities?
Take Away’s about Coconut Oil
- Limit your use of coconut oil and all saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories to prevent increases in “bad cholesterol” and your risk for heart disease.
- Fats that are unsaturated such as olive, avocado, canola or vegetable oil are “heart healthy” and preferable to all saturated fats including coconut oil, butter, etc.
- Exercise & omega-3 fatty acids can increase “good cholesterol”
- A diet high in fiber (fruits, vegetables, beans, oats and other whole grains), plant sterols and soy (tofu, soy milk, soybeans) can lower “bad cholesterol”
- Limiting coconut oil doesn’t mean you have to eliminate it from your diet all together, just use it in moderation. Check out my Coconut Rice recipe here to see how I use this oil once in a while for flavor!
To read more about the coconut oil debate, check out these resources –