Coconut Oil: Good Or Bad?

by in Food News, April 14, 2009

A couple weeks ago, some of you brought up the coconut oil controversy — with many praising this high-fat oil as a healthy choice. Eager to know more about the latest studies, I investigated more. Here’s what I found.

Saturated Fat Basics
Ever since restaurants started banning trans fats, tropical oils like coconut started making a comeback. With its high smoke, it is ideal for high-heat cooking methods like frying.

Coconut oil is one of the only plant-based sources of saturated fat (others include palm and palm kernel oils). Animal sources of saturated fat include butter, whole dairy products, beef and poultry skin. According to the American Heart Association, American Medical Association and USDA, we should limit our saturated fat to 7-10% of our daily calorie intake — this includes eating tropical oils such as coconut, which contains 92% saturated fat (one of the highest sources of saturated fats around).

According to the American Dietetics Association, 20-35% of daily calories should come from fat. They promote replacing most saturated and trans fats (e.g. margarine) with unsaturated fats such as olive, walnut and peanut oils.

The Controversies
Most old-school nutrition experts slam coconut oil because of its sat-fat content. Pro-coconut oil advocates, meanwhile, argue that the oil is easily absorbed because it’s a medium-chained triglyceride (I won’t go on about the science). However, there’s strong evidence that suggests the various fatty acids found in coconut oil, including lauric, palmitic and myristic acid (all medium-chained triglycerides), raise both LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol and total cholesterol.

Then there’s the argument that tropical regions use coconut oil as a staple, but they don’t have a higher heart disease rates when compared to areas that primarily use olive oil. Thing is, these tropical regions also don’t eat as many packaged processed and fatty fried foods as Americans! Plus, Americans like to eat out, and coconut oil is replacing the cooking oils used in restaurants these days (note that restaurant coconut oil isn’t the extra virgin coconut oil that pro-coconut folks advocate).

What the Studies Show
Studies released over the past 25 years show an overall pattern that coconut oil increases the risk for heart disease (check out this summary of studies for yourself). Just because a handful of studies show slightly different results doesn’t mean it’s a green light to throw years of research out the window.

The Recommendations
Since coconut oil is already in many packaged and restaurant foods, you shouldn’t use it as your cooking oil, too — especially if you have heart disease or it runs in the family. Stick to unsaturated oils such as olive, canola, peanut or walnut. But even use those sparingly (remember: all oils have about 120 calories per tablespoon). Save coconut oil for special dishes that you love to cook once in a while. If you still want to use it, replace other highly saturated fat foods such as butter and whole milk with extra virgin coconut oil, and be mindful to not go over 10% of your total calories. Avoid refined and hydrogenated versions, which have trans fats.

TELL US: Where do you stand in the coconut oil debate?

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Comments (97)

  1. Bonnie says:

    If we are worried about fat, one option is to just eat more coconut in the diet. Bob’s brand natural flaked unsweetened coconut is excellent, or I have let the kids have the fun of cracking a fresh coconut open, breaking off the shell, and shaving off the rind to eat the yummy coconut flesh. Good eats.

  2. Holly says:

    As a nutrition counselor I recommend using raw, organic virgin coconut oil because it helps the thyroid, can balance blood sugar, provides energy, easy to digest for many people, it's also anti viral/anti bacterial, and it's delicious!

  3. Gena says:

    The use of coconut oils are recomended by the experts for children with Autism for the gfcf diet. I have used it for my son and it definatly helps with his clarity.

  4. I think we have become so fearful of fats in our culture, and as a result we have scores of people on “lowfat diets” which means they are on high sugar diets- contributing to osteoporosis, weight gain, and feeling constantly hungry. We have much to learn from indiginous cultures who believe in the importance of fats. And I agree with the person who wrote about Canola oil- it is a terrible oil to use!

  5. Elle says:

    yes, i wish there was a yes or no on coconut oil…I prefer rice bran oil-very good.

  6. Kathy S says:

    I am totally and severly allergic to both palm and coconut oil!!
    I get a sudden and severe raw rash, severe and prolonged diarrhea, severe headache, and sometimes can't breath very well. Ironically, I LOVE coconut and used to scarf down Almond Joys, etc. like crazy. We discovered several years ago that Girl Scout cookies apparently changed their recipes to use coconut oil – so there THOSE went!!

    • Kitty says:

      Are you O+. In the book "Eat Right for Your Type" it tells you to skip coconut. I love it so much, I may not know if I have a reaction. Do you make food with coconut oil, or just the Almond Joys?

  7. Charles says:

    I had a discoloration on my eye at nineteen that was diagnosed as Archis Senilis. They said at that time that because I was only nineteen that it probably was nothing more than getting a freckle on your skin and that when persons of 40+ have it, it often indicates hardening of the arteries.

    I researched the subject myself and for many of the last 35 years I have been taking niacin, lecithin and rutin. Several years ago I had a full body CT scan that indicated that I had 0 (zero) occlusion and calcificaton in my arteries.

    I believe that natural, organic cold pressed coconut oil has a positive effect on the system and most recently is purported to increase the HDL more than it's effect on other blood elements.

    I believe that this needs to be researched more and confirmed.

    Natural poison doesn't make you better, it is still poison.

    • Nightingale says:

      There is some research on this, check out the Weston A Price foundation to find out more, I've been really surprised by the results on my own body, increased energy and even re-mineralization of my teeth that I've had problems with for years… but its best if you do your own research. Don't take my word for it, go out and find out for yourself.

  8. David says:

    The author was playing it safe: “Old studies say this – newer studies say that – so be careful.” Not too much research done. A fairly lame article overall.

    • @15oggjon says:

      I totally agree, not giving us much info at all, and although the presentation looks good, it was a very lame article and an attempt at actually discreditting the benefits of Coconut oil!!

  9. Josie Wales says:

    Put some coconut oil on the bottom of your chair legs and push away from the table.
    Calories in and calories out. That’s all there is to it.
    Fat people eat to much and don’t move enough. Period!

  10. Anita says:

    I am going to purchase some coconut oil. I to am interested about how the lady with the child that has autism gave it to her child. The comment about fat people pushing away from the table is crazy. It seems that the person making the comment does not know that all over weight people over eat. Sad you need to get the facts!!!Don't send out trash and anger.

    • Gary says:

      You don't eat to get fat, you eat because you are fat. Read "Why We Get Fat" by Gary Taubes. It's the hormone insulin.

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