Coconut Oil: Good Or Bad?

Many praise this high-fat oil as a healthy choice, but is coconut oil really a safe option for cooking?

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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