The American Heart Association has released a review discussing the importance of limiting saturated fat in the diet to promote cardiovascular health, specifically advising against the use of coconut oil. The AHA focuses on the recent rise in the use of coconut oil, and how the public has started to view such a concentrated source of saturated fat as a “miracle food”. Some of the health claims that have been made about coconut oil include: that it promotes weight loss, helps to relieve inflammation, aids in digestion, boosts the immune system; and some even suggest that it could be part of a “cure” for Alzheimer’s disease. So with all this conflicting advice, how should we proceed when it comes to using coconut oil?
The AHA reports that in recent controlled trials, the saturated fat found in coconut oil directly increased LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, which is linked to the development of cardiovascular disease. Information that is lacking from this review, however, includes the other contributing factors of the participant’s diet in the studies that were completed – so more research is required.
One thing they do note is that we cannot expect a decrease in the risk of developing cardiovascular disease just by simply cutting out saturated fats. It’s important that we are replacing saturated fat with healthier sources of fat, such as olive oil, nuts, and avocado, along with other habits representative of a healthy diet regimen.
Some of the positive health claims regarding coconut oil stem from its above average concentration of MCT’s (Medium Chain Triglycerides) compared to other fats and oils. Studies have shown that MCT’s have a shorter half-life when in the body, and are less likely to be stored in fat cells. A big health claim from those promoting coconut oil is that this MCT-rich oil has a positive impact on metabolism and aids in weight loss. However not all coconut oil is created equally, as MCT concentration varies from product to product, and the research behind this claim is inconclusive. Research also suggests that Lauric acid, the predominant MCT found in coconut oil, has been shown to increase HDL (or “good” cholesterol) in our bodies. It’s unclear however, if HDL is raised simply because of coconut oil alone, or because of other positive dietary factors in the diet.
The bottom line is that it’s important to understand that there is no easy “cure” for a slimmer waistline, and “miracle foods” do not truly exist. And although there are proposed health benefits from consuming coconut oil in the diet, this shouldn’t give individuals the impression that there are no limits when it comes to how much one should be consuming. We should also understand that saturated fat is not the sole contributor to the development of cardiovascular disease. Other dietary patterns that should also be addressed are the consumption of excess sugar, sodium, and processed foods in the diet.
So when it comes to eating coconut oil, it’s probably best to use sparingly, and focus instead on other heart healthy oils that have been studied more extensively, such as extra virgin olive oil. Other heart healthy oils to try, especially if cooking at high temperatures, are avocado oil and rapeseed oil. And remember that you can always speak with your physician, or a nutrition professional such as a Registered Dietitian, when it comes to understanding evidenced-based research on particular health claims that you have questions or concerns about.