3 Things to Know about Coconut Oil to Save Your Health

Is coconut oil good for you

Is coconut oil good for you?
© Can Stock Photo / ckellyphoto

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 address 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.

If coconut oil is out, what should I use instead #coconutoilClick To Tweet

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.

 

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Jill-Weisenberger_about-image-2
Jill Weisenberger

I'm Jill, and I believe simple changes in your mindset and health habits can bring life-changing rewards. And I don't believe in willpower. It's waaaay overrated. As a food-loving registered dietitian nutritionist, certified diabetes care and education specialist and certified health and wellness coach, I've helped thousands of people solve their food and nutrition problems. If you're looking for a better way to master this whole healthy eating/healthy living thing or if you're trying to prevent or manage diabetes or heart problems, you'll find plenty of resources right here.

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7 Comments

  1. Maggie on June 30, 2017 at 8:31 am

    I always wondered about MCT oil. Thanks for explaining that coconut oil doesn’t have much of it. Nice post.

  2. John on October 10, 2017 at 12:43 pm

    Dr. Oz program, yesterday, confirms everything you’ve written here. I did the food elimination/low carb diet for a year. I used coconut oil as recommended. It was a total flop and failure. At some point, the weight loss I wanted totally stalled out. Then I started gaining everything back in less than half the time when I stopped that intermittent fasting/low carb food elimination diet. I will never ever do that to myself again.

    As for the coconut oil, it was always in the back of my mind, if this stuff becomes rock solid in cooler temps what is that doing inside of my body and arteries. The food elimination” non-diet diet” groupies will tell you that you couldn’t possible get enough fat in the form of coconut oil that would do you any damage. I no longer believe that and I’ve left that paleo low carb – this is a “non-diet diet” lifestyle change behind. It didn’t work and it was impossible to sustain longterm. No more coconut oil for me.

    • Jill Weisenberger on October 10, 2017 at 12:49 pm

      I’m sorry that you had such a bad experience John, but thanks for sharing it. As you know, there are much better, more healthful fat choices.

  3. Denise on February 1, 2018 at 6:14 pm

    Thanks for the information. It is so counter to what I learned about fats growing up.

    • Jill Weisenberger on February 1, 2018 at 6:58 pm

      Thanks for visiting. I’m glad we’re moving away from fat phobia and learning that the type of fat is more important than the quantity of fat. It gives us so many more ways to enjoy our meals!

  4. Maria Faires, RD on December 27, 2018 at 11:10 am

    Thanks Jill for writing such an informative article. I can always count on you to provide evidence-based advice.

    As a dietitian this is the advice I give my clients as well. It surprises me to see some dietitians advocating for the use of coconut oil despite the science and the American Heart Association statement strongly discouraging the use of coconut oil.

    • Jill Weisenberger on December 27, 2018 at 11:46 am

      Thank you for your kind comment!

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I believe simple changes in health habits can bring you life-changing rewards.

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