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The verdict on coconut oil

It's not a simple yes or no

During the no-fat, low-fat craze of the 1980s, coconut oil was nonexistent at the grocery store. Its high levels of saturated fat made it, and other oils and fats, outcasts of the food world. Today, coconut oil can be found at most supermarkets. Search the words “coconut oil” online, and you’ll find loads of information about its miracle cures. So, which is it? Food villain or superhero?

“Neither,” says Julie Enga, R.D., L.D., a Wellmark dietitian. “As much as I want it to be a cure-all, no single food fits that bill. While there are some practical uses for coconut oil, if you include it in your diet, you should do so with moderation.”

Daily limit for saturated fat

The American Heart Association recommends aiming for a dietary pattern that achieves 5 percent to 6 percent of calories from saturated fat External Site. For example, if you need about 2,000 calories a day, no more than 120 of them should come from saturated fat. That’s about 13 grams of saturated fat per day.

1 tablespoon of coconut oil has about 13 grams of saturated fat.

Common questions about coconut oil

Enga answers some of the most common questions about coconut oil:

  • What is it?

    Coconut oil is basically the oil extracted from the “meat” of the coconut palm. It is kind of like lard — it is solid at room temperature and it has a long shelf life.

  • How are people using it?

    Coconut oil is being used anywhere oil or butter is normally used, and more. If you go online and search “coconut oil” you will see all kinds of ways to add coconut oil to your diet, from coffee and smoothies to desserts and baked goods. You’ll also find countless health claims. Some say it aids in digestion and weight loss. Some say it cures poor immune function, thyroid disease, heart disease and Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Are the health claims true?

    There is no evidence that suggests coconut oil will help you lose weight, or that it helps with digestion, or cures any sort of disease. So far, most evidence is circumstantial or subjective in nature. Reputable publications are cautious about the use of coconut oil. Ultimately, to recommend coconut oil, we need more rigorous, large-scale, validated research about its health effects, particularly how coconut oil affects heart health. Simply put, we don’t have that yet.

  • What is the concern about using coconut oil?

    Coconut oil has one of the highest concentrations of saturated fat of any food (90 percent). As a comparison, butter is about 64 percent saturated fat, and beef fat and lard are 40 percent saturated fat. Olive oil is 14 percent saturated fat. Saturated fat increases LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease. Diets that are high in saturated fat have been linked to a higher incidence of heart disease and stroke.

  • What should I know before using it?

    The main thing to remember is just one tablespoon of coconut oil contains the most amount of saturated fat that’s recommended per day. If you want to add a teaspoon of coconut oil to a smoothie, for example, do so. But overall, limit your saturated fat intake to 13 grams or less per day. So, if you add this amount to your smoothie, you’ll need to cut back elsewhere.

    It’s important to note that most of us don’t have a problem getting our daily fat intake. I would never suggest adding another type of fat to your diet unless you are swapping it out for another fat. For example, if you normally use a small amount of butter in a recipe, you could swap for the same, small amount of coconut oil, if you enjoy the taste more.

  • Is it true that the saturated fat found in coconut oil is better than the saturated fat found in fatty meats and cheese?

    It is true that not all saturated fats are the same. Coconut oil’s saturated fat is made up mostly of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. These are sometimes referred to as lauric acid. Some people say your body handles them differently than the longer-chain fats in liquid vegetable oils, dairy and fatty meats. However, we simply don’t know if the MCTs found in coconut oil are “less bad” for you than these other fats.

  • Does MCT-saturated fat in coconut oil boost HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels?

    While this may be true, the saturated fat in coconut oil may also increase your LDL. Just to clarify: LDL is “bad” cholesterol. It forms plaque that blocks your arteries. HDL is “good” cholesterol. It helps remove LDL. Just because coconut oil may raise HDL doesn’t necessarily mean it is good for your heart. In other words, we don’t know if an increase in HDL cholesterol outweighs a rise in LDL.

  • Does cutting saturated fat lower my risk of heart disease?

    Good heart health depends on a number of factors. While the American Heart Association does warn against saturated fat, doing so doesn’t necessarily lower your risk of heart disease. Cutting out saturated fat does reduce the risk of heart attacks if you’re replacing it with the right foods, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables. In other words, it depends on what you eat to replace the saturated fat. If you fill that void with sugar, white flour, and other empty calories, you won’t lower your risk of heart disease.

  • What about the use of coconut oil in beauty products?

    Coconut oil does contain anti-inflammatory properties that make it appropriate for skin care. While I am not an expert on beauty products, my opinion is, if it works for you as a makeup remover or as a way to rejuvenate skin or hair, there is little harm in trying it out.

The bottom line

Coconut oil is fine for occasional, limited use, within the limits of saturated fat you can eat per day. Most of what you’ll read online about coconut oil is hype, so don’t buy into the notion that any one food will treat or prevent chronic illness.

Interested in more articles like this where we look at the health facts versus the hype of popular products? Check out these articles on essential oils and toothpaste.