Is coconut oil healthy and worthy of its hype? Here are the facts you need to know about this trendy fat–and what YOU should do.
Is Coconut Oil Healthy? The Backstory
This tropical oil used to be enemy #1 among many health advocates. It was accused of being “artery-clogging” because more than 80 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated fat, the kind linked to increased cholesterol levels that can up the risk for heart disease. Coconut oil actually contains a higher percentage of saturated fat than butter or even lard.
Is Coconut Oil Healthy? The Latest
In a survey conducted by The New York Times two years ago, nearly three-quarters of consumers labeled coconut oil as “healthy”. So why the sudden change? With more people eating a vegan or plant-focused diet, there was a greater need for a fat that could fill in for butter in baking and cooking (but contain no animal products). Wellness gurus began touting coconut oil for everything from weight loss, stress reduction, and clearer skin to hormone imbalances and Alzheimer’s disease.
Some scientists also started backtracking on the idea that saturated fat was a cholesterol-raising villain after all. They also pointed out that half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a kind that doesn’t raise “bad” LDL cholesterol as much as other kinds–and that may even boost “good” HDL cholesterol. The net effect might be that coconut oil has a neutral impact on cholesterol levels. They also argued that coconut oil is only damaging to health when it’s hydrogenated, which creates trans fats (the kind of coconut oil you buy in jars is not hydrogenated).
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Is Coconut Oil Healthy? Another Flip?!?
At the height of coconut oil fever, The American Heart Association made waves last year when they released a Presidential Advisory that recommended against using coconut oil. In their analysis of dozens of studies, they concluded that the the LDL-raising effects of coconut oil cannot be discounted, since elevated LDL is a risk for cardiovascular disease. They also argued that there are no proven favorable effects of using it.
Is Coconut Oil Healthy? What YOU Should Do
Remember that New York Times survey showing nearly 75 percent of consumers say coconut oil is healthy? In that same survey, only 37 percent of nutrition professionals said the same. Like so many things, this isn’t black and white–or even healthy or unhealthy. The answer is somewhere in the middle. So here’s my advice:
Don’t scoop with reckless abandon. If you like the flavor of coconut oil, use it. But remember that it’s easy to go overboard and take in a lot of calories very quickly (about 240 for two tablespoons).
Keep other healthy fats in the mix. There’s simply not as much evidence that coconut oil is beneficial to health in the same way that liquid vegetable oils like canola and olive oil are. Canola and olive are both a mix of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and have been shown in research to be good for your heart.
Be wary of weight loss claims. Coconut oil contains a kind of fat called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) that are thought to be burned quicker by the body than long-chain fatty acids. But the studies that are cited about weight loss use something called MCT oil, which is 100 percent MCT. Regular coconut oil is less than 20 percent MCT. Since it’s unclear whether the research findings on MCT also apply to regular coconut oil, it’s smart to use it sparingly, like you would any other oil.
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Ditto for miracle health promises. There is some research being done with the kinds of fats in coconut oil and diseases like Alzheimer’s and diabetes. But the research is in early stages, so it’s largely speculation at this point. Including coconut oil along with other oils in a healthy diet is a reasonable approach. But coconut oil will not cure disease.
Learn the label lingo. Know what you’re getting in your jar. Here are some terms you’ll see on labels:
- “Unrefined” or “Virgin”: This oil is extracted from fresh coconut meat, and no further processing was done. It will have a deeper, tropical flavor. Not recommended for high-heat cooking like frying.
- “Refined”: This oil is extracted from dried coconut meat and undergoes some kind of processing like steaming, filtering, and bleaching to remove impurities and pigments. This oil has a more neutral flavor and a higher smoke point, so it’s better for higher-heat cooking than unrefined.
- “Cold-pressed” and “expeller-pressed”: The oil was extracted by a machine that presses and grinds the coconut. Cold-pressed is done at a lower temperature to lock in more flavor. No additional chemicals are used in these methods, and these oils tend to be more expensive.
Beware the health halo. Just because a recipe swaps out butter or vegetable oil for coconut oil doesn’t make it automatically “healthy”–no matter what Pinterest tells you. Desserts are still desserts, no matter what kind of fat is used.