Is coconut oil good or bad for us?

Jar of coconut oil with wooden spoon

In recent years, you may have seen coconut oil promoted as a healthy substitute to use in the kitchen and even branded as a so-called “superfood.” But those headlines aren’t exactly accurate.

Here’s the truth: The health risks from consuming too much coconut oil outweigh any potential benefits.

What is in coconut oil versus other cooking oils?

Coconut oil is 100% fat and is made from the milk and flesh of coconut palm fruit. One tablespoon of coconut oil has about 120 calories and 13.5 grams of total fat. This is similar to other popular cooking oils.

The problem with coconut oil is that up to 90% of its fat content is saturated fat. That’s the type of fat that raises LDL or “bad” cholesterol. LDL cholesterol collects in your blood vessels and raises your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.

Olive oil, avocado oil and grapeseed oil have a much higher proportion of unsaturated fats. That’s why I recommend using these options as your main cooking oils rather than solid fats like coconut oil or butter.

That being said, if you must choose one of the saturated options, butter is still a better option than coconut oil. Coconut oil is actually higher in calories and has more total fat and saturated fat than butter. If using butter, it’s still best to use in small quantities to prevent consuming too much saturated fat.

The truth about the purported health benefits

Researchers have been studying a specialized form of coconut oil made of medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs. MCTs have a shorter chemical structure and are digested more quickly than saturated fats. This has led to theories that MCTs may prevent fat storage, improve energy levels, boost brain function and make you feel fuller after eating.

The positive headlines you may have seen about coconut oil stem from these studies. The problem is that this type of coconut oil is not what you’re buying. The coconut oil at the grocery store is made primarily from saturated fats, not MCTs. That’s why we can’t say regular coconut oil would have the same benefits.

Coconut oil does contain vitamin E, which is beneficial for brain health, skin health and acts as an antioxidant. However, the amount of vitamin E in coconut oil isn’t enough of a reason to add it to your regular diet. You can get vitamin E from heart-healthier options like olive oil, and from foods like avocado, nuts and dark, leafy greens.

It is true that coconut oil can be helpful as a moisturizer for your skin and hair. Research studies have also shown coconut oil may help prevent cavities and improve gingivitis when used as a mouthwash in a practice called “oil pulling.”

If you’re consuming coconut oil, moderation is key

The American Heart Association says saturated fats should account for no more than 6% of your daily calories. I don’t recommend using coconut oil as your main cooking fat but if you enjoy the flavoring, use it in moderation. Keep the portions small.

The rest of your diet plays a pivotal role in determining how much coconut oil is too much. If you follow a mostly plant-based diet with little-to-moderate amounts of lean animal protein like chicken, turkey and fish, then you may be able to get away with having a bit more coconut oil.

However, if you regularly eat red meat, cheese, fried foods, ice cream and pastries, and aren’t getting enough vegetables, fruits, whole grains and legumes, then you’re already consuming high amounts of saturated fat. Therefore, adding coconut oil would not be a good choice.

The main takeaway about coconut oil is that it raises cholesterol, both good and bad. That’s why the risks outweigh the benefits. There are much healthier strategies for raising good cholesterol levels, like regular exercise, maintaining a healthy weight and quitting smoking. I also recommend eating more foods containing omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, tuna, walnuts, chia seeds and flax seeds.

Nutrition is a complex and nuanced topic. It’s all about achieving balance. If you have more questions, meeting with a registered dietitian to discuss your dietary habits and goals would be very beneficial.

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