Coconut oil is an all-natural wonder: It's skin moisturizer, hair conditioner, coffee creamer, butter substitute, and delicious on toast. But it's not a magical health food, a group of doctors said.
The oil is 82 percent saturated fat, and studies show it raises "bad" cholesterol levels just as much as butter, beef fat, or palm oil, the American Heart Association (AHA) said in a recent advisory.
"I just don't know" who is pushing the idea that coconut oil is healthy, Frank Sacks, the report's lead author and a heart disease specialist at Harvard School of Public Health, said in a statement.
The AHA last week issued a sweeping advisory on saturated fats to clear up the public misperception that they aren't really risky for your health.
Sacks and his colleagues said the "tipping point" leading to their report was a well-publicized 2014 study that concluded the amount of dietary and saturated fats you eat has no bearing on your risk of heart disease.
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That study stirred much confusion, but it wasn't the only one. Weight loss studies have pointed to the metabolism-boosting benefits of medium-chain triglyceride, a fat found in coconut oil and a favorite of the Paleo diet. But those trials involved consuming unusually high levels of the fat — more than you'd realistically consume when mixing coconut oil into your diet.
For the advisory, published last week in the AHA journal Circulation, scientists pored over hundreds of research papers published since the 1950s.
They found strong evidence that saturated fat raises bad cholesterol. Known as low density lipoprotein, or LDL, it's the main cause of atherosclerosis, which is the hardening and clogging of arteries that leads to heart attacks, strokes, and other cardiovascular diseases.
Image: centers for disease control and prevention
Researchers also found that replacing saturated fat with healthier oils (such as canola, soybean, peanut, safflower, and sunflower oils) can lower the risk of heart disease.
But coconut oil is conspicuously absent from that list of healthy ingredients.
Existing data showed coconut oil raised bad cholesterol in seven out of seven controlled trials. And it actually has more saturated fat than butter (63 percent), beef fat (50 percent), and pork lard (39 percent).
"Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol ... and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil," the AHA said in its recent advisory.
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Still, ditching coconut oil and other fatty foods won't instantly lower your risk of heart disease. A 2015 study found that some people who cut saturated fat out of their diet fill the void with sugar, white flour, and junk foods.
AHA recommends people instead replace saturated fats with unsaturated oils, vegetables, nuts, beans, or whole wheat bread. Perplexingly, deep-fried foods do make the cut.
"There’s nothing wrong with deep frying, as long as you deep fry in a nice unsaturated vegetable oil," Sacks said.