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Ask A Dietitian: Are Coconut Oils Bad for Me?

You may be asking if coconut oil is bad for you, so we asked the experts.

You may have already seen it. USA Today published a story in June titled, “Coconut Oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy.” The story was inspired by a recent statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) in the Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease Advisory,

 “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”

USA Today’s post and AHA’s statement generated considerable good vs bad oil buzz across media outlets. The article was also met with a range of emotions, from surprise and disappointment to relief. The strongest coconut oil fans, total disbelief. My goal as a Cardiology Clinical Dietitian is to try to clear confusion you might have about potential heart-healthy diet foods and the health benefits of coconut oils. Let me begin by saying that within the field of clinical nutrition, the breaking news that coconut oils are not all they’re cracked up to be is not new.

The AHA’s statement which advises against the use of coconut oils, “because it increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects,” seems to be pretty straightforward and sound advice. So why all the commotion?

Many believe saturated fats are not harmful, thanks in large part to a 2015 British Medical Journal review which concluded saturated fats are not associated with cardiovascular disease (CVD), chronic heart disease (CHD), ischemic stroke or type 2 diabetes. The review was good news for coconut oil lovers because 82% of coconut oil’s fats are saturated–much higher than butter, which weighs in at 63% saturated fat. But the BMJ review was flawed. Many across the medical and nutrition community spoke up and called the authors out on their mistakes and shortcomings of the research. Retractions and corrections were quietly made, but the damage had already been done. I believe this is one of the ways coconut oil started to gain traction in the market.

Additionally, many coconut-oil-loving-consumers are also head over heels for coconut oil’s magical property, medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). Advocates of coconut oils boast about MCTs because MCT oil metabolizes differently than other fats. Studies have indicated MCT has other benefits too; specifically, MCT may result in slightly more calories burned during digestion and food absorption than other long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) like olive oil– a result referred to as the thermogenic effect. But these studies are using 100% MCT oil in their subjects, not coconut oil, which contains a mere 13-15% MCTs.

As registered dietitians, our job is to look at the science and make evidence-based recommendations to our patients. To do so with confidence, we require a large body of consistent, robust data. In the case this “good oil vs bad oil” discussion, we’re just not there yet. All we know for sure is coconut oil contains a very high concentration of saturated fat (which has been proven to increase LDL cholesterol, a risk factor for heart disease), a low concentration of MCTs (which may increase calories burned during digestion), and the same number of calories per tablespoon as other plant-based oils (120 calories/tablespoon) like olive oil.

So if you’re looking for advice from a Clinical Dietitian, choose coconut oils more for taste, and less for health. If you are interested in trying it, go right ahead. Many people enjoy the slightly sweet, nutty taste, but remember the saturated fat intake guidelines have not changed.  The AHA suggests saturated fat make up no more than five to six percent of your total daily calories; that comes out to approximately 120 saturated fat calories per day if you’re on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet. To avoid weight gain and a potentially increased risk of chronic disease, make sure you are lowering your intake of other saturated fat-containing foods to compensate for the addition of coconut oils.

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