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Coconut Oil and Saturated Fat: Clearing Up the Confusion

Coconut oil has emerged as a major source for debate about diet, saturated fat and how much of this potentially artery-clogging substance is too much.

Coconut oil had been considered a healthy option by most American and many dietitians, at least up until a few months ago when the American Heart Association concluded officially that it raises your “bad cholesterol,” or LDL, and advised against its use as a regular dietary or cooking aid.

What’s the big problem with coconut oil? For starters, it happens to be the only plant-based food that contains saturated fat, a potential contributor to heart disease which is found in many popular foods of the American diet. Saturated fats are most often found in animal products such as beef, pork, and chicken. Leaner animal products, such as chicken breast or pork loin, often have less saturated fat.

“This one plant-based food has the proponents and components of saturated fat,” explains Amy Kimberlain, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with Baptist Health South Florida. “What does saturated fat do in our bodies? It actually can stick because it’s a solid. So what does that end up doing? It ends up clogging our arteries.”

Saturated fat raises total blood cholesterol levels and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease.

The initial school of thought with coconut oil was that it contained a high quantity of MCT, or medium-chain triglycerides. MCTs offer health benefits, such as helping with digestion and providing a clean fuel for the body. By speeding up metabolism, MCTs can help with weight loss management.

How Much Saturated Fat in Coconut Oil?
Before issuing its cautionary warning last year, the AHA reviewed existing data on saturated fat, showing coconut oil increased LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol in all seven controlled trials examined. Researchers did not discern a difference between coconut oil and other oils high in saturated fat, like butter, beef fat and palm oil. In fact, 82 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, according to the data — far beyond butter (63 percent), beef fat (50 percent) and pork lard (39 percent).

So what’s behind the school-of-thought reversal?

“It was thought originally that coconut oil had a higher component of MCT,” says Ms. Kimberlain. “However, based on these studies and what they’re looking at now, it seems that coconut oil is not as high in MCTs as was originally believed.”

The AHA recommends eating no more than 6 percent of saturated fat as part of total daily calories for those who need lower cholesterol. Common sources of saturated fat include red meat, whole milk and other whole-milk dairy foods and cheese.

Nonetheless, even the AHA’s advisory hasn’t dampened the appeal of coconut oil for many dieters. It’s still touted as a natural source of MCTs. Some diets even mixing it in with your morning cup of coffee. But MCTs are not normally consumed in sufficient daily amounts to encourage sustainable weight loss or other health benefits touted by promoters of coconut oil. And there is no evidence-based research yet that indicates oils with heavy concentrations of MCT prevent obesity, diabetes or other chronic conditions.

The big takeaway is to practice caution and moderation when it comes to coconut oil, and be extra careful if you have high cholesterol. “When it comes to what you’re eating and drinking, pay attention to quantity and moderation,” says Ms. Kimberlain. “That also applies to coconut oil.”

Baptist Health has created this page as a resource [1] to help you find your healthy plate. What we eat, when we eat, and how we eat relate to our overall health.

Watch Ms. Kimberlain’s video [2] about the value of coconut oil on Facebook.