Is Coconut Oil Bad for Your Health?

Do you use coconut oil? If so, you’re not alone.

Coconut oil has been American’s sweetheart for the past few years. In fact, 72% of Americans consider coconut oil to be a “healthy food.” It’s been touted to help burn fat, kill bacteria, improve your cholesterol, and even reduce seizures. For awhile, it seemed like coconut oil could do no wrong.

Like the Tom Brady of oils.

And then, like Tom Brady, coconut oil’s pristine reputation came into question.

The American Heart Association said coconut oil isn’t healthy . . . and never has been. Basically, it was deflategate for coconut oil.

The American Heart Association’s recommendation to avoid coconut oil caused quite a stir. Folks defending and prosecuting coconut oil popped up giving their “expert” opinions.

So what’s the real deal with coconut oil?

I’m here to break it down for you and give answers to the questions you and my patients have.

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Question 1: What Exactly is In Coconut Oil?

Coconut oil is a fragrant and edible oil extracted from the meat of coconuts. It has a pleasing taste to many people and can be used in cooking and baking. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and liquefies when warmer.

Coconut oil is over 80% saturated fat. For comparison, olive oil is about 14% saturated fat and canola oil is about 7%. This matters when we get to question 3.      
The fatty acid that makes up nearly half of coconut oil is lauric acid. This is followed by myristic, palmitic, decanoic, caprylic, and oleic fatty acids.

Question 2: What Are the Benefits of Coconut Oil?

This is trickier to answer for several reasons. First, the quality of studies looking at health benefits of coconut oil varies greatly. Second, coconut oil is still being studied. Third, many of the claimed coconut oil benefits come from anecdotal experiences.

What I’m going to cover are the evidence-based benefits of coconut oil. This means the benefits that have quality studies to support them.

The best evidence for coconut oil deals with dermatologic conditions. Eczema and other skin disorders can be improved with topical application of coconut oil.

In terms of the heart, it appears coconut oil does not either increase or decrease the risk of disease.

For cholesterol, there is evidence that coconut oil increases HDL-C (the so called “good cholesterol”). There are studies that show coconut oil also increases LDL-C (the so called “bad cholesterol”).

In terms of obesity, coconut oil does not appear to change weight or body mass index.

However, coconut oil is associated with decreased waist circumference. And decreased waist circumference is associated with decreased risk of heart disease.

Question 3: What Are the Negative Effects of Coconut Oil?

The most common negative effects of coconut oil include diarrhea and weight gain.

Question 4: Why Does the American Heart Association Say Coconut Oil is Bad?

The American Heart Association says coconut oil is bad for you. Why?

The American Heart Association says LDL-C cholesterol (so called “bad cholesterol”) increases your risk of heart attacks.  They also say saturated fat increases your so called bad cholesterol. Therefore, the American Heart Association says coconut oil is bad for you because it is over 80% saturated fat.

Basically, the American Heart Association is saying coconut oil increases the risk of heart disease.

So is this evidence-based?

Not precisely.

There is NOT definitive evidence showing coconut oil causes heart disease. Nor is there evidence to say coconut oil prevents heart disease.

What we do know is coconut oil increases HDL-C (so called “good cholesterol”) and may increase LDL-C (so called “bad cholesterol”).

You may be alarmed that coconut oil raises so called “bad cholesterol.” However, cholesterol is not that simple.

The type of cholesterol is more important than the cholesterol itself. This is a topic I could write extensively about, but allow me to over simplify. LDL cholesterol particles, when small and dense greatly increase your risk of heart disease. LDL cholesterol particles, when larger do not increase your risk of heart disease. Coconut oil does the latter - it increases the size of the particles and should not increase your risk of heart disease.

Bottomline: Even if coconut oil increases the LDL-C number on your cholesterol test, it improves the QUALITY of your LDL making it less likely to promote heart disease.

Question 5: Should I Use Coconut Oil?

If you’re a regular around these parts, you know safety and efficacy are my main concerns with alternative therapies.

Is coconut oil safe? It is likely safe when used appropriately and in moderate amounts.

Is it effective? That depends on what you are considering. In terms of dermatologic issues, it appears there is good evidence to show coconut oil works. The evidence for other treatments is less solid.

Question 6: Do You Use Coconut Oil?

Do I personally use coconut oil? Sparingly.

That is because coconut oil, like every other oil, is a processed food. Typically, I recommend eating food in its whole form (like oranges instead of orange juice and avocados instead of avocado oil). Coconut oil is no exception.

There is no reason to completely avoid coconut oil. But like any processed food, I suggest using it sparingly.

Do You Have a Burning Health Question?

Send it my way! Next week we will continue this series on frequently asked questions.