Coconut oil has grown in popularity over the past few years, as it’s touted as a health food and a cure-all to everything from acne to diabetes and obesity. But is it really that incredible – or does all that saturated fat carry some risks?
Coconut oil has grown in popularity over the past few years. Many people think it is a healthy “superfood” cure-all, with a recent survey reporting that 7 out of 10 Americans think coconut oil is good for you. But is it really? Last week the American Heart Association published a review of fats and cardiovascular disease, saying that coconut oil isn’t as healthy as everyone was making it out to be. Since that meta-analysis was published, the media has jumped all over this “finding”, with headlines screaming “Coconut oil is bad for you” and “Coconut oil is as unhealthy for you as red meat”. I’ve been getting tons of questions about this over the last week, so I thought I’d take a minute and break this all down for you.
Why dietary fats are important
Not only is fat good for you, you actually can’t live without it. Fat is an essential part of a healthy diet. Dietary fat provides essential fatty acids that keep skin soft and healthy and is the only nutrient that can deliver fat-soluble vitamins to your cells. Plus fat plays a crucial role in weight loss and maintenance: it helps to slow down digestion, which keeps you full and satiated long after you eat.
What’s the difference between saturated and unsaturated fat?
Saturated fats are a type of fat that is solid at room temperature. Most saturated fats come from animal sources, including butter, dairy fat, and fat found in chicken, red meat and eggs. The only plant-based source of saturated fat is coconut oil. The saturated fat content is what makes coconut oil solid at room temperature.
Unsaturated fats are typically liquid at room temperature, such as olive oil, canola, oil and safflower oil. Unsaturated fats are also found in fatty fish like salmon or mackerel and many plant foods such as nuts, seeds and avocados.
While saturated fat may not be as bad as previously thought, it does not appear to be beneficial. When you replace saturated fats in your diet with refined carbohydrates, there is no difference in health or disease outcomes. But when you replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat, you see a reduction in heart disease. Unsaturated fats, including the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat, clearly show a health benefit.
Wait – I thought butter was back?
Many, many (many) studies have shown that when you replace saturated fats in your diet with unsaturated fats, cholesterol improves. Unsaturated fats can help to decrease your LDL or “bad” cholesterol while at the same time increasing your HDL or “good cholesterol”. Unsaturated fats are also linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease (heart disease, heart attacks and stroke). The whole “butter is back” headline that dominated the news media last year was because a review of studies showed that when you remove saturated fat from the diet and replace them with carbohydrates, cholesterol levels and rates of cardiovascular disease don’t change (and may worsen). But what those articles failed to mention is that when you remove saturated fat and replace it with unsaturated fat (especially polyunsaturated fat), high cholesterol and cardiovascular disease rates drop. So the key here is LESS saturated fat and MORE unsaturated fat – this is when you see the best results in terms of cholesterol and disease risk.
Ok, then how did coconut oil get its healthy reputation?
Coconut oil comes from coconuts, so it seems very natural, which then led people to believe it’s healthy and good for you. While coconut oil contains mostly saturated fat, much of that fat is what we call MCT’s, or medium chain triglycerides. These fats tend to be used more for energy in the body, with less of them stored as fats (versus long chain fatty acids – found in most dietary fat – that tends to get more stored as fat or impact cholesterol levels negatively). Sounds great, right? The problem is, only about 15% of the fat in coconut oil is from true MCTs – so most of the MCT’s act just like other saturated fats. This is what the American Heart Association meta-analysis (aka a review of many different large research studies) said: that coconut oil, just like other saturated fats, increases LDL or “bad” cholesterol, and therefore may increase the risk of heart disease.
What’s the bottom line: is coconut oil bad for me?
No one food will make you healthy, just like no one food will make you unhealthy. This includes coconut oil. Coconut oil isn’t necessarily bad for you, but it isn’t particularly good for you either. Using this as a fat source from time to time is perfectly acceptable, as long as you are also including plenty of unsaturated fat in your diet as well.
Some saturated fat is ok to include in your diet as long as you are also eating lots of whole foods including vegetables, fruit, whole grains, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and different sources of unsaturated fat. I recommend varying your sources of saturated fats to widen the variety of nutrients you get – so one day use coconut oil, the next time use olive oil. Aim to keep saturated fat to less than 10% of calories, and when you decrease saturated fat in your diet, make sure you are replacing that with other, healthier sources of fat (like nuts, seeds, olive oil, or – my fav – avocados).