A UVA Heart & Vascular Center Initiative

Does Coconut Oil Belong in Your Diet?

Posted April 15, 2015

I’ve been wondering lately if there’s anything coconut oil can’t do. Based on what I’m seeing on websites, television and in magazines, coconut oil can do pretty much anything short of changing a flat tire! Here are a few of the recent claims made in the news about coconut oil:

“If you’re going to choose just one product to add to your health arsenal, coconut oil may be your best bet.”

“Coconut oil reverses the effects of type 2 diabetes.”

“Coconut oil … solves a whole handful of health issues, including aging, weight balance and infection.”

“Scientists have recently discovered a powerful new weapon against heart disease … coconut oil.”

As the dietitian for ClubRed and UVA Heart & Vascular Center, I of course zoned in on that last statement. So let’s focus specifically on the pros and cons of coconut oil as it relates to heart disease.

First … what do we know for sure about this tropical oil?

  • Coconut oil is extracted from the “meat” inside the hard-shelled fruit of the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). Like lard, it is solid at room temperature, which classifies it as a saturated fat. Saturated fat is well known to raise levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the blood, whereas unsaturated fat has a more positive impact on heart health .
  • Coconut oil is the most concentrated food source of saturated fats (92 percent), even more so than butter (63 percent).
  • Coconut oil has approximately 120 calories per tablespoon or nine calories per gram, comparable to any other fat (butter, olive oil, etc.).

So far, coconut oil isn’t looking so good. And from here, it gets a little more complicated, but this is where the health claims come in.

Coconut oil contains a high percentage of medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs. MCTs are metabolized differently than other fats, which results in a slightly greater “thermogenic effect” (increase in calories burned during digestion and absorption of foods) compared to oils made up of long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) such as olive oil.

In addition, coconut oil’s primary saturated fatty acid is lauric acid, which some research has shown to not only raise LDL, but also raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol. In a 2009 Brazilian study that appeared in the journal Lipids , for instance, young obese women who consumed an ounce of coconut oil a day for 12 weeks had increases in both LDL and HDL, but their HDL rose proportionately more.

This sounds compelling, but is the evidence from this study enough to warrant tossing your olive oil in favor of a jar of the tropical stuff? Not even close. This is only one very small, short-duration study conducted on Brazilian women, whose typical daily diet likely differs quite a bit from that of U.S. women.

The Verdict: Choose Coconut Oil for Taste, Not for Health

As health practitioners, our job is to look at the science and make evidence-based recommendations to our patients; and in order to do so with confidence, we require a large body of consistent, robust data. In all fairness, there are many studies that show some kind of connection between coconut oil and heart health, but not all studies are created equal.

The studies the scientific community depends on are the larger, longer-term, double-blind, randomized controlled trials (RCTs) for which the humans being studied are randomly allocated to one of the different treatments under study. In contrast, many of the studies proudly offered up by coconut oil advocates are small pilot studies lasting only a few weeks and mostly involving small animals (rats and birds etc.) Also among the studies proudly cited on the coconut oil websites are some that do not specifically study the effects of coconut oil (or even MCTs), but rather take a more general look at saturated fats.

Bottom Line: If you are interested in trying coconut oil, go right ahead (many people enjoy the slightly sweet, nutty taste.) But remember that the guidelines for saturated fat intake have not changed (the American Heart Association recommends that saturated fat make up no more than 5 to 6 percent of your total daily calories; approximately 120 calories if you’re on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.) So to avoid weight gain and a potentially increased risk of chronic disease, make sure you are compensating for the addition of coconut oil in your diet.

Keep in mind that, although the media stories can be tempting, the most reliable and trustworthy source on the health benefits of coconut oil (or any other food product) is your physician or registered dietitian.

Looking for personalized tips on how to follow a heart-healthy diet, make an appointment with a UVA registered dietitian today by calling 434.243.4749.

By Katherine Basbaum, MS, RD