Dear Dr. Jo: Is coconut oil as healthy as I read on the internet?
This is a common question when I’m speaking to groups. The usual answer is that saturated fats (such as those found in meat fat, butter, lard, and, yes, coconut oil) increase one’s risk of heart disease while foods rich in unsaturated fats (like canola oil, fish oil, nuts and nut butters, and olive oil) decrease one’s risk. This position statement is in alignment with the American Heart Association (and volumes of research) as well as the most recent guidelines from the European Atherosclerosis Society.
Two of the oils richest in monounsaturated fats (and recommended for heart-health) are also very low in saturated fats – olive oil has 15% saturated fats, while canola oil has the lowest amount at 7%. And, since coconut oil is 86.5% saturated fat (according to the USDA National Nutrient Database), it is not a recommended oil.
Just because a lot of people say coconut oil is healthy, doesn’t mean it’s true.
Key Points About Coconut Oil
- If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. As I search on the internet I read that coconut oil is being recommended for everything from hair and skin care, heart disease, and weight loss. There’s also praise for helping with digestion, healing, and immunity. Oh, and don’t forget pancreatitis, cavities, stress relief and even HIV! You get the point. It’s like everything else in life, if something sounds too good to be true…run in the opposite direction!
- “Not that bad” is not the same as “good.” I often hear people defending coconut oil as “new research has found that the saturated fats in coconut oil are “not that bad.” Just because it’s “not that bad” doesn’t mean it’s good for you. Proponents will tell you that most of the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid (actually it’s only about half). While we often thought of all saturated fats as harmful, there is some scientific evidence that some saturated fats might not be as harmful as others. In fact, some research demonstrates that while lauric acid raises serum LDL cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), it also increases the serum HDL cholesterol (the good stuff) – so there may be a “wash.” But still…lauric acid makes up just half the saturated fats…what about the rest? And, let’s face it, when you have a fat with 86.5% saturated fat, the “rest” is a real lot! So, while coconut oil may not be “that bad,” in my opinion, it’s no where near “good.”
- Just because a little might be ok, doesn’t mean you should use a lot. Even if coconut oil “isn’t all that bad” (and…as you read in the previous bullet, I don’t think that’s true) that doesn’t mean you should be pouring coconut oil on everything! Some websites recommend eating 3.5 tablespoons a day!! I’ve heard of people drinking it by the tablespoon. Others add it to their milkshakes and pour it over their food. These people are using it to the exclusion of every other type of fat. Contrary to popular belief, all fats have the same number of calories…about 120 calories a tablespoon. Remember, two thirds of all Americans now overweight or obese. The last thing we need to be doing is adding extra calories! So, if you really love coconut oil, limit it to a few favorite recipes – and then stop there.
My Recommendation for Coconut Oil
My recommendation still stands unchanged regarding the well-researched evidence that we should decrease our saturated fat and increase our unsaturated fat intake. Therefore, for most of your fat needs, stick to monounsaturated fats such as olive and canola oils. Use olive oil for drizzling and dipping. Canola oil can be used for all the ways you use fat – for dressings, marinades, baking, and cooking. If you must fry, use canola oil. It has one of the highest smoke points. Smoke point is the point at which fat breaks down into harmful products. Canola’s smoke point is more than 100 degrees higher than coconut oil.
For spreadable fats, stick with a soft tub margarine (rather than butter and stick margarine that are highly saturated). There are so many healthy tub options including Smart Balance and Brummel & Brown.