Coconut oil is a pantry staple among the clean eating, paleo and Bulletproof crowd and there are no shortage of online sources waxing poetic about its supposed health benefits. Increasingly, athletes have also become smitten with the tropical fat, believing it can trim the waistline and supercharge workouts. Yes, fat is back in and coconut oil’s stock has skyrocketed.
So when the American Heart Association (AHA) recently released a report on the role dietary fats play in cardiovascular health that included a small but decisive section encouraging people to lay off coconut oil for better heart health, feathers were ruffled. “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of cardiovascular disease, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil,” the report reads, in part.
For some, it was like declaring kale a nutritional villain and coconut oil boasters were quick to deem the scientists as stodgy crocks. But when you separate the science from the sales pitch, coconut oil’s awesome-for-you rap is largely overblown and not supported by good data.
Coconut oil is made by pressing the fat from the white flesh inside the giant nut. About 84 percent of the calories in the resulting oil hail from saturated fat. That makes coconut oil denser in saturated fat than most other oils and solid fats—14 percent of the calories in olive oil are saturated, whereas 63 percent of the calories in butter hail from saturated fats. Hence, why it has been historically demonized by many nutritionists and health organizations including the AHA.
Coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol, a so-called “bad” form of cholesterol, about as much as other oils high in saturated fat like beef, butter and palm oil in the existing research reviewed by the AHA for its advisory published in the journal Circulation. And that can be bad news for your ticker. But there is a catch. Coconut oil boosters rally behind studies suggesting it also raises levels of HDL cholesterol, a form of cholesterol deemed “good.” (Unlike LDL, HDL cholesterol is thought not to build up on artery walls and increase this risk for a heart attack or stroke). Research, however, is inconclusive as to the impact that coconut oil has on the total cholesterol-to-HDL ratio as well as blood triglyceride numbers, which can be more significant predictors of coronary woes than straight up HDL numbers. And many other factors including inflammation, arterial calcification and genetic mutations can also play a role in heart maladies.
“People are kidding themselves if they think that eating coconut oil alone is enough to improve their health,” says sports dietitian and Ironman competitor Marni Sumbal. “The research we have still suggests that we should not be using coconut oil as a substitute for other high-fat foods like olive oil, avocado, and nuts that have more proven health benefits.”
Researchers at Harvard reported that replacing 5 percent of the saturated fat calories in a diet with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated calories can slash heart disease risk by 25 and 15 percent respectively. Now to be fair, that also includes other forms of saturated fat found in items like meat and dairy, and replacing saturated fat with processed carbs like white bread and sugar brings about no improved health measures.
Though the science remains a bit cloudy at this point, let’s say that, at best, coconut oil may have a neutral impact on your beating organ. It likely won’t improve your heart health, but it appears not to definitively increase your risk for heart disease, either. “More so if your daily diet doesn’t consist of spoonful’s of coconut oil and instead focuses on other disease-fighting foods like vegetables, fruits, whole grains and seeds,” notes Sumbal. “The big concern is people who are using coconut oil in excessive quantities believing it’s the magical panacea when it’s anything but.”
Lower down from the heart, the reason coconut oil is trumpeted as helping in the battle of the bulge is largely due to its higher proportion of saturated medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) than most other fats like olive oil or butter. The human body handles MCTs like lauric acid in coconut oil differently than long chain fats and prefers to burn them off for energy rather than storing them as flab.
But you should know that studies like the ones from the early 2000s in which researchers at McGill University in Canada found that MCTs did a better job at increasing thermogenesis (burning calories) and fat oxidation (breakdown of fat for energy) than long chain fats in overweight men and women have been wildly misinterpreted. Those researchers used oil designed to contain 100 percent MCTs— not coconut oil, which is made up of only about 15 percent MCTs. You need 15 to 20 grams of purified MCT oil to experience an uptick in metabolism.
The upshot is that huge amounts of coconut oil would have to be consumed for a metabolic effect to occur. Smaller doses of MCTs—like what you would find in coconut oil—have not been shown to noticeably raise metabolism. And a recent study found that a meal containing virgin coconut oil made people feel hungrier than a meal containing extra virgin olive oil. Add enough coconut oil and it’s 116 calories per tablespoon added to your diet to get the MCTs you need to rev metabolism and Sumbal says you will surely gain weight not lose it. “Sorry to be a downer, but coconut oil is a weight-loss dead end.”
Beyond the belief that it helps maintain race weight, athletes may turn to coconut oil under the assumption that the MCTs it contains also delivers a rapid source of energy for working muscles and can reduce the reliance on carbohydrates. Again, studies pertaining to athletic performance have used 100 percent MCT oil which provide a much greater dose of these fats than you would get from coconut oil.
“Besides, even lean athletes have enough fat stores to power hours and hours of moderate exercise, so spooning up coconut oil for this purpose is fairly pointless,” notes Sumbal. She adds that when you pick up the pace you actually want to rely on carbohydrates as an energy source since they are much more efficient at powering muscles during high intensity efforts than fats. “There was a time when MCT supplementation was gaining steam with athletes, but then GI issues started to arise and its use started to wane.”
The Bottom line: It’s not that coconut oil is some kind of diabolical, disease-causing dietary evil—it’s just that the available evidence suggests that it is undeserving of a health halo and shouldn’t be the number one fat source in your diet. If you like its flavor or the moistness it adds to baked goods, go ahead and include small amounts—say no more than a tablespoon daily—in your eating plan and keep loading up on better-for-you fat sources and whole foods.