Coconut oil has been getting a lot of attention recently. Many people are singing the praises of coconut oil’s beneficial effects for their skin and it’s also a cooking oil that resists oxidation at higher heat. Many are also touting the benefits of coconut oil for cardiovascular disease, and argue that coconut oil should be considered a “healthy fat”.
I think there’s a lot of confusion about fats, especially coconut oil. Although some research shows a variety of beneficial effects on health, this doesn’t automatically mean that this is a healthy fat, capable of reducing cardiovascular disease. In fact, coconut oil contains a very high proportion of saturated fat, which is often thought of as a “bad” fat that can increase our risk of cardiovascular disease.
It seems that many people are now cooking with coconut oil, putting it in their coffee, or taking coconut oil in supplement form – and yet the American Heart Association’s recent advisory recommends that coconut oil be reduced or eliminated from our diets. So what gives? Why are we being told two very different stories?
I decided to dive into some of the research on coconut oil and this is what I’ve found. There are studies that have looked at different countries or cultures whose diets contain a much higher amount of coconut oil, while also having very low rates of cardiovascular disease. However, we must also take into account that their diets are predominantly plant-based, contain a lot of fish, and are accompanied by very high activity levels.
I also looked through 11 of the most relevant clinical studies pertaining to coconut oil and cardiovascular disease. Below is a brief summary of my conclusions, taking all of these studies into account.
1) Coconut oil tends to raise Total Cholesterol levels and LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels (LDL is linked to increased risk of cardiovascular events and doctors will typically give you medications if your LDL is too high).
2) Coconut oil also tends to raise your HDL (“good”) cholesterol (HDL cholesterol is protective and reduces the risk of heart disease).
**Keep in mind that we can’t really say that this would negate the risk from the elevated LDL. Also, other vegetable oils can help raise your HDL as well.
3) Overall, it looks like coconut oil would be a better alternative to other saturated fats (i.e. butter). However, it also looks like polyunsaturated fats (including vegetable oils) have a more favourable effect on our cholesterol levels than does coconut oil.
Taken together, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence at all to suggest that coconut can be “heart healthy” and reduce our risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, these studies seem to suggest that coconut oil may have an unfavourable effect on cholesterol levels, and that polyunsaturated fats would be a better alternative.
Dr. Michael Morsillo, H.B.Sc., N.D.
Newmarket Naturopathic Clinic