We consume more coconut oil in recent years both in cooking and also in a variety of food products. Some trendy health bloggers and a few research articles call it a healthy fat with beneficial impacts for cardiovascular health. But some experts disagree: Chemically, it is considered a saturated fat, which makes it like butter. So is it good, or bad? What should we believe? Here we will weigh the research on coconut oil, and shed some light on an even newer trend, MCT supplements.
Coconut oil is 92% saturated fat, and so is classified in the same category as butter, palm oil and other fats that are solid at room temperature. These other fats have negative effects on the heart and disease risks. So, the American Heart Association suggests that saturated fats should be limited or avoided.
A tablespoon of coconut oil has around 120 calories, and 112 calories from saturated fat. - USDA Food Repository Data
So if coconut oil is a saturated fat, and saturated fat is bad for us, then why do people think it is healthy?
Why The Big Picture Matters
Are you confused yet? There’s reason to be. The reasons for the health claims supporting coconut oil are based on biased research. Traditional diets (like in Cambodia and Thailand) that consumed coconut flesh, water, or cream have been used as evidence to support the claims in favor of coconut oil in the diet. However, the traditional meals studied contained little or no processed foods, many fruits and vegetables, and fish as the main source of protein. These factors likely had a larger effect than coconut oil on normalizing blood cholesterol and reducing risk of death from heart disease. Also, coconut flesh is more common than oil in these traditional diets, which is has more health benefits- coconut flesh contains fiber which is known for lowering cholesterol, while oil contains only fat.
In contrast, Western diets are typically high in processed foods, sugar and fat and also low in fiber.
Currently, there is no clear evidence on how coconut oil affects cardiovascular disease risks. Blood lipid and cholesterol in some studies indicated that people who ate unsaturated fats had much lower total and LDL cholesterol levels than those who ate coconut oil, and those who ate coconut oil had lower levels compared to those who ate butter. However, evidence also suggested that coconut oil raises HDL cholesterol, which protects the heart. Overall, this positive impact of coconut oil on cardiovascular health is not the same for everyone.
Want to Know the Science?
Researchers believe that a possible reason why coconut oil may have variable impact on cholesterol is probably because the length of fatty acid molecules in it are mostly a little smaller than in other fats.
More than 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are medium in length (known as medium chain triglycerides, or MCT). Medical nutrition therapy professionals provide prescription MCT supplements to patients who cannot properly metabolize longer-chain lipids.
However, MCTs are also marketed as having health-promoting properties to healthy individuals, when the truth is, metabolically, this may be false.
The fatty acid most common in coconut oil, lauric acid, can be classified as a long-chain or a medium-chain fatty acid. Metabolically though, lauric acid behaves as a long-chain fatty acid and about 70-75% of it is absorbed into the bloodstream. The remainder (25-30%) is not absorbed, and does not contribute to blood lipid levels. This variability in absorption may explain why coconut oil has an inconsistent impact on blood lipid levels, and why MCT supplements don’t often work for healthy individuals.
Since coconut oil is most similar to other saturated fats, limit coconut oil in your diet. Saturated fat, in general, should be less than 10% of total daily calories. Practically, this translates to less than 200 calories per day (for a 2000 calorie diet) from any source of saturated fat!
Just Remember This
By itself, adding coconut oil to the typical Western diet in place of other fats is not likely to have any effect on your health if you don’t make significant other changes as well. If you haven’t been diagnosed with disordered lipid metabolism, and you haven’t been given a prescription for MCT by your doctor, then take caution when considering MCT supplements. The impact of these other fatty acids on human health are not fully studied (as of 2022) and many over-the-counter supplements do not identify which fatty acids they contain.
Consuming a healthful diet containing mostly fruits and vegetables, some fiber-filled whole grains, low-fat protein, and healthy fish several times per week has been shown to be most beneficial for heart health, and with more consistent results than just using coconut oil. Limit intake of processed foods with added sugar, fat and salt. If you are looking for an alternative to cooking with butter, coconut oil is not a magic bullet. Aim to use more avocado oil, olive oil, or even some nuts and nut butters in cooking, or use low fat cooking methods.