Coconut Oil: The Good, the Bad, and the Unknown
Coconut Oil and Heart Health
Over time, our understanding of dietary fat has become far more advanced and nuanced, and this has led some experts to change their tune a bit on coconut oil. Coconut oil is about 90 percent saturated fat, a type of fat generally categorized as harmful because it raises cholesterol levels. But the latest science suggests not all saturated fats are created equal, and different varieties have different effects on cholesterol levels and other health indicators. The primary type of saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, but also increases HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels dramatically…so you get a little good along with the bad. Butter, which is rich in another type of saturated fat known as palmitic acid, doesn’t give HDL the same big boost. While coconut oil does appear to be a better choice than other saturated fats, from a heart health perspective, it still can’t compete with unsaturated fats like olive oil. Unsaturated fats lower LDL cholesterol and maintain or increase HDL levels, which means they are a win-win for your ticker.
The Perks of Medium-Chain Fatty Acids
There’s also a lot of talk about coconut oil’s weight loss benefits. These claims stem from the fact that, unlike most oils, the majority of the fatty acids in coconut oil (including lauric acid) are the medium-chain variety. Fatty acids vary in length, and the short- and medium-chain types are digested in a more direct pathway than long-chain fatty acids, which may increase your metabolism slightly. The key word is slightly. A few studies have found that people who consumed a small daily dose of medium-chain fatty acids (typically a tablespoon or a two) as part of a calorie-controlled diet for several months lost two to four pounds more than people consuming the same amount of other oils that are entirely long-chain fatty acids, like olive and soybean. But these studies used purified, 100 percent medium-chain fatty acids, and coconut oil is only about 50 percent medium-chain. Most important, the study participants kept their total calories in check. Like other fats, coconut oil is extremely calorie-dense at 120 calories per tablespoon, which means if you just add it to your diet without cutting calories elsewhere, you’ll be setting yourself up for weight gain, not loss.
However, there is no shortage of research showing that unsaturated fats – like those in olive oil, canola, safflower, and grapeseed oil-– boost cardiovascular health and ward off heart disease without any downsides (except weight gain if you overdo it, of course). So while a question mark still hovers over coconut oil, I’ve decided to stick with these versatile, heart-smart standbys. I use olive oil as my primary oil, but for high-heat cooking like stir-frying I typically opt for grapeseed, canola, or peanut oil (whichever is handy in the cupboard or matches the cuisine best). I also have a bottle of avocado oil, which I enjoy using in raw preparations like salad dressings. I fully support substituting coconut oil for butter in recipes that require solid fat, like cookies and other baked goods, but I prefer the taste of butter and use it infrequently, so I’m not inclined to make the switch.
What are your favorite fats and why?