Coconut oil is often thought of as a healthy alternative to butter or other oils used in cooking and baking. However, nutritionists say it may be best to limit coconut oil.
No, coconut oil is not good for you
Coconut oil contains around 90% saturated fat, which is much more than the 64% saturated fat content found in butter.
Eating too much saturated fat can raise cholesterol levels, which increases your risk of heart disease and stroke. Coconut oil is also known to raise cholesterol levels more than other plant-based oils like olive oil or sesame oil.
Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and become liquid when melted. “Think of it as going into your body as a liquid and then turning to that solid in your arteries,” says Colleen Christenson, a registered dietitian and nutritionist. “This is essentially the basis for why it’s recommended to avoid excessive saturated fat intakes.”
Coconut oil is also a high-calorie food, meaning if you don’t consume it in moderation it could cause weight gain. Fats contain nine calories per gram, which is much higher than the ratio found in carbs or protein, which both contain four calories per gram.
Why people think coconut oil improves heart health
Despite its high saturated fat content, there are a few reasons that people think coconut oil is a healthy fat.
The main reason is coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat found in coconut oil. MCTs have a different chemical makeup than other fats, meaning your body processes them differently. MCTs have six to 12 carbon atoms, which is less than more commonly found long-chain triglycerides’ (LCT) 12 to 18 carbon atoms.
“MCTs are able to be digested and absorbed more rapidly than other fats, and therefore can be used as a more immediate energy source,” says Melissa Rifkin, MS, RD, CDN, a dietitian based in New York City.
“Because they are less likely to store as fat due to how they are digested and absorbed, MCTs are less likely to impact LDL levels [bad cholesterol] in the blood,” says Rifkin.
However, despite its benefits, store-bought coconut oils only contain around 54% MCTs, says Rifkin. Additionally, the chemical makeup of MCTs used in research tends to be different than those found in coconut oil.
“Many of the MCT oils used in clinical studies have eight or 10 carbon chains, whereas those in coconut oil typically have 12. This composition makes the coconut oil we use in cooking quite different from those studies using MCT oil,” says Christensen.
Although coconut oil does have some MCTs, it doesn’t have enough to reap their health benefits and override the negative consequences associated with its high saturated fat content.
Coconut oil does help you feel fuller for longer
Although coconut oil may not be as healthy of a food as most people think, it does have some health benefits, namely its ability to keep you fuller for longer, which might help with weight loss.
Fats are more calorie-dense than most foods, so eating them during meals may help you stay satiated compared to eating a carb-heavy meal. Increasing your MCT intake may also help curb your hunger.
However, you certainly shouldn’t “add it to everything thinking it’s the magical fat for weight loss and health,” says Lisa DeFazio, a registered dietitian nutritionist based in California.
Healthier alternatives to coconut oil
Consuming moderate amounts of healthy oils is good for you because they contain essential fatty acids that your body can’t make on its own. There are three types of fats in plant-based oils:
- Monounsaturated fats, which are the “good” kinds of fat that can reduce LDL cholesterol levels.
- Polyunsaturated fats, which also help lower LDL cholesterol levels. These fats include omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids that are essential for your body to function.
- Saturated fats, which are the worst for your health. For this reason, the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends consuming less than 10% of your daily calories from saturated fats.
To choose the healthiest cooking oil, opt for those with high amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats and low amounts of saturated fat. Some examples of plant-based alternatives for coconut oil include:
Canola oil: This oil contains both omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids which can help lower cholesterol and ease inflammation. Canola oil has 62% monounsaturated fat, 32% polyunsaturated fat, and 6% saturated fat.
Extra virgin olive oil: This fat has a high concentration of polyphenols. Polyphenols are naturally occurring antioxidants known to reduce and slow the progression of certain chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular or neurodegenerative diseases. Olive oil contains 77% monounsaturated fat, 9% polyunsaturated fat, and 14% saturated fat.
Sesame oil: This oil is high in lignans, which are plant nutrients with antioxidant properties, possibly reducing the risk of heart disease and some cancers. Sesame oil has 40% monounsaturated fat, 46% polyunsaturated fat, and 14% saturated fat.
While many people think coconut oil is a healthy fat, it can actually increase cholesterol levels and lead to weight gain. Although it contains beneficial MCTs, it does not contain them at the same high percentage used in research, meaning it won’t have the same benefits for your health.
Therefore, it’s best to swap your coconut oil for other plant-based oils like olive or canola oil.
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