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How Healthy Is Coconut Oil, Really?

Is it just me, or are the headlines about coconut oil enough to give you whiplash? Way back when, coconut oil was an artery-clogging public health enemy. Then it was a superfood darling and miracle cure-all. Now looks like it’s starting to fall out of favor again.

The American Heart Association released an advisory last year that recommended against using it. And a Harvard University professor made waves recently when she accused the oil of being “pure poison.”

So what gives?

The flip-flopping over coconut oil centers around the kind of fat it contains. Coconut oil is more than 80 percent saturated fat, the type associated with higher cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart disease. Coconut oil actually has more saturated fat than butter or lard.

There’s some evidence that the saturated fat in coconut oil doesn’t raise cholesterol. Half of its fat is a kind called lauric acid, which doesn’t appear to boost “bad” LDL cholesterol as much as other types do (and might actually raise “good” HDL levels). So the net effect on your cholesterol level just might be neutral. Plus, the really bad effects of coconut oil happen when it’s hydrogenated, which creates trans fats. The kind sold in jars that people use in their kitchens is not hydrogenated.

Because it was seen as a healthy fat, can be used in vegan recipes, and is so versatile (working as a solid or a liquid), coconut oil has been hugely popular. Online recipes call for liberal scoops of it in everything from stir-fries to brownies, and testimonials claim it cures everything from crow’s feet to chronic disease. In a recent survey, almost three-quarters of consumers labeled the oil as being “healthy”.

But the AHA points to studies comparing coconut oil to other fats and oils (such as olive and safflower) that show coconut oil does indeed raises LDL cholesterol. They also note that there aren’t any proven positive effects of coconut oil that might offset that risk.

So where does that leave us? As with a lot of things, I favor a middle-of-the-road approach. If you like the flavor and versatility of coconut oil, I say go for it–with a few cautions: First, keep using other oils like olive and canola too. Unlike coconut oil, they’re shown in research to be heart-healthy.

It’s also smart to be wary of coconut oil claims that seem too good to be true. For instance, there’s a lot of hype about coconut oil and weight loss because it contains something called MCT (medium-chain triglycerides). MCTs have been found in some research to be burned quicker by the body than other fats. But those studies use pure MCT oil, while coconut oil is only about 20 percent MCT.

There’s also not enough evidence that coconut oil helps conditions like Alzheimer’s or diabetes, though using coconut oil as part of a healthy diet is certainly a reasonable approach to take.

Finally, remember that using coconut oil in place of butter or another oil doesn’t make that recipe “clean” or even healthy. Like all fats, coconut oil is calorie-dense (about 240 for two tablespoons) and it doesn’t magically turn brownies or cookies into health food. Dessert is still dessert, no matter what kind of oil is used.

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