Is Coconut Oil Good for Your Health?
A few weeks ago, a new client told me that she adds coconut oil to her smoothie everyday. I can’t imagine how this semi-solid oil improves the taste or nutritional value of an otherwise fruit-only smoothie. “My mom told me it burns fat,” was her answer when I asked how she came to spike her fruit with coconut oil. And no, she didn’t think that it made her smoothie tastier.
There’s lots of confusion about coconut oil, and people are asking if coconut oil is good or bad. Recently the American Heart Association (AHA) issued an advisory about fats and heart disease. In it, they strongly discourage the use of coconut oil. This has caused quite a hullabaloo across the internet, with many people questioning why they thought coconut oil was good in the first place (I’ll dress that below) and others claiming that the AHA is incompetent in their denouncement of all things coconut.
Here are 3 things you should know to decide if coconut oil is good.
1. It’s loaded with calories and saturated fat. A mere tablespoon rings up at 120 calories and 11 grams of saturated fat. That really is a lot of saturated fat since most people should cap their intake somewhere in the range of 13 – 20 grams per day for the sake of their hearts. That wouldn’t leave room for too many other foods with any fat at all since all fats are a mixture of saturated and unsaturated fatty acids.
Also, I can think of way better ways to spend 120 calories – either better-for-me fats or something completely different like a bowl of berries and some reduced fat cheese, a 1/4-cup of roasted chickpeas, a few chocolate-covered almonds and a whole bunch of other yummy things.
2. Coconut oil has no superpowers. I understand the desire for natural foods and foods that resemble their more natural state. But we can’t say that just because it’s natural, it’s good for us. After all, tobacco is natural. Plants do contain health-boosting phytonutrients, and coconut has some too. But we have to balance that information with what we know about saturated fats and heart health. Some coconut oil is going to be okay, but without some pretty strict limits, we’re not doing our health any good.
So back to that bit about coconut oil burning fat or being good for weight loss. Many people argue that coconut oil is good because they compare it to medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) or MCT oil, which is absorbed and metabolized differently in the body than other saturated fatty acids and may actually have some benefits. But this is a misguided comparison because coconut oil doesn’t resemble MCT oil very well at all. There are more MCTs in coconut oil than other oils, but not enough for coconut oil to have similar effects as MCT oil.
For you geeky types: The medium chain fats have 8 (caprylic acid) or 10 (capric acid) carbon atoms in their chains. Only about 13% of coconut oil’s saturated fatty acids are true medium chains. A major saturated fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid, which has 12 carbon atoms in its chain. Lauric acid does not behave like caprylic and capric acids. Only a small proportion of lauric acid is absorbed through the portal circulation in the way that caprylic and capric acids are absorbed. The majority of lauric acid is absorbed via chylomicrons just like long chain fatty acids.
3. There are better choices. As I already said, all foods with fats will have some saturated fats. But there are so many delicious, convenient choices that have a lot less saturated fat than coconut oil. Here’s a nice chart from Canolainfo that compares the types of fats in different oils. I prefer canola oil and extra virgin olive oil for most things. Now and then, I use peanut, sesame, walnut, and almond oils too. You can even use them for baking. Typically, you can swap out 4 tablespoons of butter or coconut oil with 3 tablespoons of liquid oil. Another good option is mashed avocado. Use it in a 1:1 ratio – 4 tablespoons of mashed avocado replaces 4 tablespoons of butter or coconut oil.
It’s probably pretty clear how I respond when I’m asked: is coconut oil good. No, I don’t think it’s a health food. I think it wears an undeserved health halo. I’m hopeful that the new AHA advisory will help dim the brightness of that halo. If you really love coconut oil, use it very sparingly. Save it for those foods where the coconut oil flavor really matters. Remember that even just a tablespoon has a lot of calories and saturated fat. If you don’t love it, find a better alternative.
Want more about the heart? Check out these posts.
- Top Foods for Diabetes and the Heart
- Heart-Healthy Fish
- 5 Benefits of Tea + How to Brew the Perfect Cup
- Foods High in Resistant Starch