Myth Buster: Coconut Oil Is No Champion

It’s that time of year again… football championships are right around the corner, and this year’s surprise standout team seems to be the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. Like the Irish, there is a once-forgotten item that has recently made a magnificent comeback in the nutrition game: coconut oil. This type of oil has long been shunned and rejected by health nuts as ”evil,” causing significant negative health consequences. But now, with the rise in natural and vegan diets, it’s suddenly being touted as a way to defeat obesity, heart disease, cancer, poor immune function, and even HIV while avoiding animal fat.  Despite the hype, we shouldn’t be fooled by all the “cheerleaders” out there singing the praises of coconut oil. It’s a convenient and effective fat source for cooking and baking, but it’s not quite the game-winning product that’s portrayed in popular media.

Photo by SingChan via Flickr

These are some of the raw “stats” for coconut oil:

  • It is solid at room temperature, which makes it good for cooking and baking.
  • One tablespoon contains 117 calories, 13.6g of fat, and no other essential macro- or micronutrients.
  • 86% of the fat comes from saturated fat. That’s more than in butter or lard!
  • It’s a plant product, so it doesn’t contain cholesterol. But that doesn’t mean it won’t affect blood levels of cholesterol!  In fact…
  • It has been shown to raise both HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (the bad kind) in the blood, but the effect on LDL is greater.

Does it affect exercise performance?  No, not directly, but then again, that’s not really one of the claims made by proponents. Instead, a better question would be: Does it improve cardiovascular health? The answer to this, simply put, is no.  In fact, most health professionals agree that it harms more than helps. While coconut oil can certainly be incorporated into a healthy diet and is not the monster we once thought, it’s also not as healthy as some sources claim. As I mentioned above, it raises both types of cholesterol in the blood, but its effect is greater on LDL, the less desirable type. This, in turn, increases the risk of plaque build up in the blood vessels over time. No touchdown there!

How much should I use? There is no recommendation for the amount of saturated fat needed in the diet, but rather a limit for the amount of saturated fat that should not be exceeded. The American Heart Association and 2010 Dietary Guidelines recommend that saturated fat should constitute < 7% of total calories (which, for a 2000 calorie diet, is about 15g of fat). If you’re using coconut oil in your diet, this means that 1 Tbsp of oil per day would already put you close to the limit, and that’s not including any other foods! Therefore, a safer bet is to sub in canola, olive, or flaxseed oils that are low in saturated fat and much higher in un-saturated fat. And when you do choose coconut oil, use it like a football coach uses a trick play… sparingly!

Another important tip is to choose virgin coconut oil because this contains fewer partially hydrogenated oils (also known as trans fats) than the processed products.

Are there harmful side effects? Yes, though they differ from the immediate and severe side effects seen with some other supplements and “health” products. In the long-term, using large quantities of oils high in saturated fat can lead to increased risk for heart disease including atherosclerosis and heart attacks. Like a huge lineman waiting patiently on the sidelines, these factors can come into play at any moment and take a serious toll on your health!

Where/How can I get it? As coconut oil makes its big comeback, it is now becoming readily available in grocery stores and health food stores alike. If you do decide to use this type of oil for cooking and baking, then remember to go for the virgin products whenever possible!

For more information about coconut oil, check out this article from Today’s Dietitian.

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