Is Coconut Oil Good for the Heart?
Coconut oil has been touted as a cure-all for a number of ailments, including heart disease. But research suggests otherwise.
By Linda Thrasybule
Medically Reviewed by Michael Cutler, DO, PhD
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Books, magazines, and advertisements sing the praises of coconut oil, claiming that it has heart benefits and contains healthy fat that can even help with weight loss. But that’s not necessarily true, according to a review published in March 2019 in theJournal of the American College of Cardiology.
In the review, researchers recommend that people avoid coconut oil, citing that it’s high in saturated fat — almost a whopping — which is more than butter, beef fat, and lard. Saturated fat is a type of fat that’s known to raise the “bad” LDL cholesterol in our body, which contributes to fatty buildup in the arteries, raising the risk of cardiovascular disease.
“It’s really not good for us,” says Stephen L. Kopecky, MD, professor of medicine in the department of cardiovascular diseases at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota. “But people seem to think it is, thanks to the internet.”
In fact, in a,72 percent of Americans considered coconut oil to be a healthy food compared with 37 percent of nutritionists, attributing it to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press.
Existing evidence on coconut oil’s benefits remains spotty. While there are a few studies that show it can slightly raise the “good” HDL cholesterol, that research is overshadowed by other studies, like one article published in March 2019 in the journalNutrition Bulletin, that cite a link between coconut oil consumption and increasing LDL levels.
So, should you toss out the coconut oil?
“If you don’t have high cholesterol, I would say use it sparingly,” says , a dietitian in preventive cardiology at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.
Coconut oil is generally used for cooking at high heat, sauteing meat and vegetables, or as a substitute for butter or vegetable oil.
One tablespoon (tbsp) of coconut oil equals about 11 grams (g) of saturated fat. That’s pretty close to the daily limit of 13 g recommended by the American Heart Association (AHA).
Still, some argue that the oil contains lauric acid, a healthy fat that is packed with medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, which is rapidly absorbed by the body and quickly metabolized for energy. Some research suggests its quick absorption helps boost metabolism and aid in weight loss, while long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), found in olive oil, fish, nuts, and avocado, are slowly absorbed and stored as fat.
Can Coconut Oil Help You Lose Weight?
While there have been a few studies, including one meta-analysis published in February 2015 in theJournal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietietics, that have shown consuming MCTs helped people shed a few pounds more than LCTs, some of these studies used MCT oil, which is made in a lab so it contains only MCTs. That’s not the same as actual coconut oil, which contains both MCTs and LCTs.
“Using data from MCT trials isn’t accurately reflecting what’s in coconut oil,” says Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “Coconut oil has a bunch of other fatty acids, so it’s not comparable with MCT oil.”
Even though a few small studies show coconut oil helps with weight loss, Dr. Kopecky says it’s important to rely on well-designed and scientifically sound studies.
“There just aren’t enough well-established studies that show coconut oil can burn more calories than say, olive oil,” he says.
RELATED: 10 Best and Worst Oils for Your Heart
Why Do We Need Good Fats in Our Diet?
About 630,000 Americans die from heart disease each year — that’s 1 in every 4 deaths, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Because heart disease is a health threat to Americans, eating a healthier diet with healthy fats, like monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, is essential no matter what your age.
“Fat is a necessary source of energy, since it absorbs essential vitamins, produces hormones, supports cell growth, and protects our organs,” says Patton. “When you replace saturated fat in your diet with mono- and polyunsaturated fats, it helps lower LDL cholesterol and inflammation.”
In other words, reach for healthy fats like olive oil rather than coconut oil.
“Olive oil is higher in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, and shown to consistently have beneficial effects for heart health,” says Patton.
In a study published in November 2019 in the journal BMJ, Harvard researchers analyzed data from more than two decades of research and found that people who consumed high amounts of the saturated fats — lauric acid, myristic acid, palmitic acid, and stearic acid — were more likely to have an elevated heart disease risk, by up to 18 percent. But replacing just 1 percent of those fats with polyunsaturated fats, whole grains, or plant proteins reduced heart disease risk to between 6 and 8 percent.
Monounsaturated fats are a good source of vitamin E, an antioxidant that helps protect cells from damage and boosts the immune system. But polyunsaturated fats, rich in omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids, are essential fats that our body needs and can’t make on its own. Omega-3 fatty acids are found in:
- Fatty fish, such as salmon and mackerel
- Soybean oils
Omega-6 fatty acids are found in:
- Vegetable oils, including corn, safflower, and soybean
- Evening primrose seed
Olive oil also has loads of health benefits, including:
- Far Less Saturated Fat Than Coconut Oil Compared with coconut oil’s 12 g of saturated fat, 1 tbsp of olive oil contains only 1 g of saturated fat, according to the .
- Anti-Inflammatory Properties Extra-virgin olive oil contains oleocanthal, a compound that suppresses the same inflammation pathway as anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen.
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