Coconut oil has grown in popularity in the last few years, credited with everything from healthier teeth to fighting Alzheimer's disease. However, a new report from the American Heart Association cautions against using coconut oil because of its high saturated fat levels.
Coconut oil contains 82 percent saturated fat, which is associated with increased levels of LDL or "bad" cholesterol, which is associated with cardiovascular disease. Coconut oil has higher saturated fat levels than butter, beef or lard.
Experts such as Lynne' Schatzlein, RD, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at Sharp Home Infusion Services, have known for some time that this health craze is not all it's cracked up to be.
"While there are some nutritional benefits to consuming unprocessed (virgin) coconut oil, we need to be cognizant of the risks associated with ingesting this popular plant-based oil as well," says Schatzlein. "The taste of coconut oil is unique and adds a nice flavor to certain dishes, but should be used sparingly as it is very high in calories and saturated fat." Saturated fats are found in meats, dairy and oils, and can increase cholesterol levels.
From a nutritional standpoint, here are the facts on coconut oil:
Downsides of coconut oil:
- High in calories, with 120 calories in 1 tablespoon
- High in saturated fat, with 12 grams in 1 tablespoon
Upsides of coconut oil:
- High in antioxidants, which are known to have health benefits, including decreased inflammation
- Adds a tropical, distinctive flavor to meals
Bottom Line: Coconut oil is unique from other saturated fats. Unlike lard and butter, coconut oil raises the "good" HDL cholesterol in the blood that protects the heart. However, it also raises the "bad" LDL cholesterol, which causes plaque and damage to the heart and blood vessels.
Because of this, coconut oil is not recommended to be used in regular, everyday cooking. Instead, Schatzlein suggests eating nuts and avocados, and choosing olive oil for daily cooking since these fats are monounsaturated, which lowers the "bad" LDL cholesterol and keeps the "good" HDL cholesterol up.
If you're planning to incorporate a specialized diet into your daily regimen, be sure to consult your primary care doctor or registered dietitian.
This story was updated in June 2017 to include the American Heart Association recommendation.