Is Coconut Oil Actually Unhealthy?

Coconut oil may not be as healthy as we thought. (Photo: Getty Images)
Coconut oil may not be as healthy as we thought. (Photo: Getty Images)

Coconut oil has long been touted for its health and beauty benefits — some people use it for just about everything. From cooking and moisturizing, to teeth cleaning and anti-fungal cream, it seems like there’s nothing that coconut oil can’t be used for.

Coconut oil’s popularity spike in the past few years has also brought a number of skeptics to the surface. Now, the American Heart Association (AHA) warns that this supposed miracle oil is not as healthy as many think. On Thursday, the AHA updated its advice surrounding saturated fat, which makes up 82 percent of the fat in coconut oil, instructing that saturated fat is known to raise “bad” (LDL) cholesterol, which can be deposited on arterial walls and cause plaque buildup and blockages that lead to heart attacks and stroke.

Instead, the AHA recommends eating no more than 6 percent of total daily calories in saturated fat for those who need to lower their cholesterol. “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil,” the American Heart Association said in the Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory.

But before you throw away your coconut oil, keep in mind that it is important to maintain a diet of around 25 to 35 percent calories from fat in order to help the body absorb nutrients from other foods. Plus, people who cut saturated fat out of their diets might not necessarily lower their risk of heart disease, as many people instead fulfill their hunger with other empty calories like sugar and white flour, a 2015 study found.

Dieticians and nutritionists agree that while coconut oil should not be overeaten, it may not need to be eliminated completely like the AHA suggests. “Over time, the benefits of using coconut oil have become overhyped. Over 80 percent of the fats in coconut oil are saturated fat. Although the composition of saturated fat in this plant oil is different than the saturated fat in an animal fat in red meat, according to science, it is still in fact saturated fat and should be worked into its recommended daily intake,” advises Beth Warren, MS, RD, CDN. For comparison, butter contains 63 percent saturated fat, beef fat 50 percent, and pork lard 39 percent.

She continues, “Studies consistently show that replacing any form of saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat will reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The conclusions do not make coconut oil out to be an evil ingredient, but it serves as a reminder to be mindful about how often you use it and how much per serving as opposed to the fad of using it freely in cooking or supplementing liberally by the tablespoon.”

Holistic nutritionist Dorit Jaffe of Whole Healthy Glow agrees. “Of course eating too much of anything, even something that is healthy, isn’t a good thing. But consuming coconut oil in moderation won’t negatively affect your health. Coconut oil is full of healthy omega-3 fatty acids, which are great for your skin, nails, and heart. It’s also antibacterial and extremely healing,” she says. “People don’t need to avoid coconut oil in their diet, only eat it in moderation.”

If you choose to continue eating coconut oil, be sure to stay within the allotted percentage of saturated fat recommended by the AHA. “I personally use coconut oil when I bake the occasional treat that needs a solid fat for consistency, or when cooking in high heat because of its high smoking point, and I recommend my clients do the same,” says Warren. “I much prefer to use a non-processed, plant-based oil when I need it for the properties of the solid fat, but I’m not under an illusion that it is anything more than that. Regardless, it is not recommended to fry often or to eat desserts at every meal, so the intake will be kept within recommended limits of saturated fat.”

If you do choose to eliminate coconut oil from your diet per the AHA’s suggestion, there are other plant-based oils that are great for cooking at high heats. “I love to cook with avocado oil, which has the highest cooking temperature with a 570ºF smoking point,” says Jaffe. “It’s also rich in healthy fats and omega-3 fatty acids.” Avocado oil, as well as walnut oil and grapeseed oil, are high in unsaturated fats that are shown to lower LDL cholesterol and increase “good” HDL cholesterol by carrying LDL cholesterol to your liver where it is disposed.

But as Warren suggests, the most important thing is to make sure you maintain a balance in your diet. “In the end, it is about the diet as a whole and making sure that all food groups and nutrients are balanced and portioned to ensure its effects are optimal for your health.”

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