Coconut oil: Is it healthy or not?

It has been more than five years since coconut oil began its meteoric rise in the United States marketplace. However, there’s still much confusion about it. According to a 2016 survey published in the New York Times, 72 percent of Americans think coconut oil is healthy.

Health claims about coconut oil range from reducing heart disease and reversing Alzheimer’s to promoting weight loss and preventing diabetes. But there is virtually no evidence to support the health hype. So where’s the disconnect?

Most of the health benefits attributed to coconut oil are associated with its high content of medium-chain fatty acids, also called medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs. Your body absorbs or metabolizes these more efficiently than other fats.

But that’s not the case when it comes to coconut oil. Mostly because the major MCT in coconut oil is lauric acid and, when processed in your body, lauric acid behaves as a long-chain saturated fatty acid or LCSFA. Your body has a more difficult time breaking these down and they are predominantly stored as fat.

Coconut oil is 92 percent saturated fat. Saturated fat raises your LDL cholesterol, the bad cholesterol linked to heart disease. In comparison, butter is 64 percent saturated fat. While butter also raises your LDL cholesterol, it doesn’t to the extent of coconut oil.

The American Heart Association recently updated its guidelines on fats to include the suggestion that people avoid saturated fats.

There are many alternatives to substitute for coconut oil that has the opposite ratio of bad to good fats. A tablespoon of olive oil, for instance, has one gram of saturated fat while the same amount of coconut oil has 12 grams. Research right now supports the unsaturated fats found in olive oil, corn oil and vegetable oils as being healthier options.

As with most things, consuming coconut oil is okay in moderation. But don’t believe the marketing hype that it’s a miracle cure. There is no strong scientific evidence to support health benefits from eating coconut oil.

Now what to do with that coconut oil stocked in your pantry? There are still good uses for it. In small amounts you can try using it as massage oil, as moisturizer for your skin or as conditioner for your hair. While coconut oil can be super for these applications, it’s not a superfood.

Caldwell Shackelford Photo3

By Ann Caldwell and Maureen Shackelford, nutritionists and registered dietitians at Anne Arundel Medical Center. To reach them call 443-481-5555.

Originally published Aug. 7, 2017. Last updated Aug. 12, 2019.

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