For years, coconut oil has been heralded as a boon for your hair, skin, and heart. (And seriously, just try finding a dessert recipe on Pinterest that doesn’t call for it.) But for all the supposed benefits of coconut oil, is it really that good for you?
Turns out, probably not.
Some background info: Coconut oil is 92% saturated fat. Yes, that kind of fat—the kind that the USDA and the American Heart Association say to limit because it can raise your levels of LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, and therefore, up your risk of heart disease and stroke. But despite its nutritional makeup, coconut oil has been touted online as good for your health. Why?
“Got me,” says Walter Willett, MD, DrPH, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who admits he’s confused by the notion that coconut oil is a health food. One guess: “Some of its saturated fat is comprised of shorter molecules than saturated fat from dairy fat, and these do tend to raise HDL cholesterol more potently,” he says. (More on HDL, the so-called “good” cholesterol, later.)
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Indeed, some people have argued that coconut oil acts differently in the body than other types of saturated fat. But a review of 21 studies published earlier this year in Nutrition Reviews refuted that claim as “inaccurate.” And while some researchers have noticed that people who eat a lot of coconut products don’t experience negative heart complications, the authors discredit that point too. Those populations consisted of indigenous people who were eating either the flesh of the fruit or coconut cream as part of a traditional diet, the authors note—not just adding the oil to their Western-style meals.
Lastly, there’s this idea that if coconut oil can raise your levels of the so-called “good” cholesterol, it could help protect your heart—and that might be a reason to include more of it in your diet. But a new study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology has suggested that HDL may not be as heart-healthy as experts thought. The researchers found that having high HDL did not protect against heart attacks or stroke. And people with the highest levels (over 70 mg/dl) actually had an increased risk of death from non-heart or stroke-related causes compared to those with more middling ranges (about 41 to 60 mg/dl).
The authors of Nutrition Reviews study concluded that there was no evidence that eating coconut oil would improve your cholesterol, or reduce your risk of heart disease. And Dr. Willett told Health pretty much same thing: “There’s really no direct evidence that coconut oil is a healthy fat,” he says.
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The bottom line: Coconut oil has some unique flavors, so it’s “reasonable” to use it in special recipes when it’s called for, says Dr. Willett. But since it raises your bad cholesterol levels more than liquid plant oils do, you’re better off cooking with canola, soybean, and olive oils.