The American Heart Association’s recent warning about coconut oil consumption probably gave many people pause—it’s been promoted as a healthy oil for use in everything from baked goods to bulletproof coffee. But it’s important to see the big picture--that the coconut oil warning is part of a larger health advisory about saturated fats, says Tawnya Dorn, RD, CDE, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Queen of the Valley Medical Center.
The American Heart Association analyzed more than 100 scientific studies from the 1950s to today and found that saturated fats increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. That’s because they raise the level of LDL cholesterol that can contribute to hardened or blocked arteries, which can lead to heart attack or stroke. Dorn says, “As a tropical oil, coconut oil is high in saturated fat—the researchers found studies that showed it raised LDL cholesterol as much as other saturated fat sources such as butter, palm oil or beef fat.”
In fact, the association says coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat, and that one tablespoon has more than 11 grams of saturated fat. By comparison, the heart association says saturated fat should be limited to 13 grams per day—so that one tablespoon takes up almost all of the recommended daily allowance.
While coconut oil has always been high in saturated fat, it grew in popularity in recent years because of other health claims—such as weight loss and increased metabolism—that were attributed to the presence of medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil. However, medical studies have not proven those claims to be true.
What is true, according to the heart association’s advisory, is that swapping out saturated fats with polyunsaturated vegetable oil can reduce cardiovascular risk by roughly 30 percent—similar to the effect statin drugs have on the heart.
“Polyunsaturated fats can be found in flax oil or walnut oil; monounsaturated fats are also better than saturated fats, and they include olive, avocado, peanut and canola oils,” Dorn says. “Generally, the average person’s diet can include limited amounts of saturated fats—when measuring cooking oils or reading food labels, remember that less than 10 percent of your daily calories should come from those fats—so be mindful of how much of any saturated fat you consume, and make sure it’s part of an overall healthy diet."
If you still want to use coconut oil every day, it’s great for external uses, such as a hair and skin conditioner, says Dorn. "But in terms of eating a lot of coconut oil every day, you can probably find another oil that’s better for your heart.”
This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.