What’s the buzz? Coconut oil is a vital pantry staple that is good for everything. However, the science says not so fast!
If you go by the headlines, fat is back — after being vilified for years, it’s now a media darling. But are all fats created equal? Not so fast, fats! Coconut oil is 90 percent saturated fat — the same type of fat that the 2015 Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting to reduce risk of cardiovascular disease. Promoters of coconut oil for health rely on the fact that half of the saturated fat in coconut oil comes from medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), some of which are metabolized differently from the long-chain saturated fatty acids found in animal products. (Don’t fall asleep yet. This is important.) However, most of those MCTs found in coconut oil are a fatty acid called lauric acid, which is actually metabolized the same way that long-chain fatty acids are — making it no better than the fat found in butter. In addition, the other half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is made up of long-chain fatty acids (similar to the amount in butter), which research has been shown to increase LDL, a risk for heart disease.
Some studies have also shown that MCTs raise the “good” (HDL) cholesterol, but the “bad” (LDL) cholesterol increases at the same time — a net neutral effect. Even so, the type of MCT in coconut oil is different than the type studied in most of the research. So, it’s difficult to say that coconut oil will improve one’s cholesterol profile. Research also does not support claims that coconut oil can aid weight loss, nor does it speed up your metabolism.
What’s the takeaway?
If you like the flavor of coconut, coconut oil is a nice substitute for butter or other animal sources of fat when cooking or baking. However, it still contains 120 calories per tablespoon (similar to other plant oils), so it should be used in moderation. For optimal heart health and other benefits, aim to use nutrient-dense plant oils like olive, avocado, or flax-seed oil the majority of the time.
For more on coconut oil and other coconut products, read this.