I was out for dinner last week with some of my gal pals and they asked me what my thoughts were on whether coconut oil is good or bad for us. The fact they raised the question made me realize debunking the statement recently put out by the American Heart Association that “coconut oil isn’t healthy, it’s never been healthy “ is still relevant. I use a lot of coconut products in my recipes and I want to assure you that coconut oil is still health promoting and safe to consume. So here’s the skinny on coconut oil.
First of all, The American Heart Association (AHA) has been saying for years that fat is bad for us and we should eat low fat, low cholesterol, and more starchy veggies. And yet, obesity rates have only increased worldwide! We are also seeing an increase in childhood obesity. Furthermore, according Dr. Mark Hyman, the AHA gets a lot of funding from the cereal industry to put their shiny stamp of approval on sugar-laden cereal boxes. We call this a conflict of interest, but I digress…
Let’s get back to coconut oil!
Coconut oil is a saturated fat. In fact, it is approximately 85-90% saturated fat. This is why there is so much confusion and why it is often vilified. We’ve been told that saturated fat clogs arteries, which leads to heart disease, but this claim only tells a piece of the puzzle.
We can’t put all saturated fats into the same category in terms of their effect on the body and their ability to increase heart disease risk. The main forms of saturated fats are laurate, myristate, palmitate, and stearate. Coconut oil is mostly made up of laurate (or lauric acid). Now, lauric acid does increase LDL (so-called bad cholesterol) the most out of the four, BUT it also raises HDL (the good cholesterol)1. I know I’m getting science-y here but stay with me.
The most important thing to optimize in terms of your blood cholesterol is your Total Cholesterol/HDL ratio. So, if you raise your LDL, you’ll also be raising your total cholesterol. But your HDL is also going up so your ratio of Total Cholesterol/HDL actually improves which is a good thing!
Furthermore, not all LDL is bad. WHAT?!? That’s right, what is more important than your LDL or particle number is your LDL or particle SIZE. Big, light, fluffy-like-the-clouds LDL is not going to contribute to your risk for heart disease. And guess what? Coconut oil helps to raise the big LDL (i.e., the good LDL). So chill out about your LDL number and know your LDL size! Talk to your functional medicine doctor or naturopathic doctor about how to test for this, as conventional screening only tests for particle number and not particle size.
And you know what increases the bad, low density LDL that clogs your arteries and increases your risk for heart disease? SUGAR AND REFINED CARBS!
I remember WAY back in biochemistry class in University when my professor told us that you could eat a whole tub of cholesterol and it wouldn’t affect your blood levels. I remember thinking this was kinda crazy (and who would do that anyway?)! But really, what you need to watch out for are the refined sugars lurking in your pantry, not your coconut oil. Refined carbs increase stearate and palmitate (these are forms of saturated fats) in your blood that increase your risk for heart disease, not the saturated fats that you ingest.
For those of you who just want me to cut to the chase to give you a couple of reasons why saturated fats (such as those found in coconut oil) are indeed health promoting, here are 6 reasons1:
- They can help strengthen your immune system by strengthening your cell membranes.
- They stabilize your blood sugar thus decreasing stress on the body and improving insulin sensitivity (more on that another time).
- They are critical for sex-hormone production (such as making estrogen, testosterone, and progesterone) because all sex hormones are made from cholesterol.
- They help your brain work better because your brain is made up of mostly saturated and omega-3 fats.
- Saturated fats, especially grass-fed butter, contain fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamin A, D, and K.
- And this one is really important to understand: In the context of a low-refined-carb diet with adequate omega-3 fatty acids, saturated fats can actually decrease inflammation2.
In conclusion, I want to make it very clear that I am not stating that coconut oil is the most healthful oil, or the only oil that you should consume. I just wanted to shed some light on the positive sides of coconut oil since the recent American Heart Association statement. Of course you want to make sure that your diet is rich in omega-3s such as salmon, and monounsaturated fats such as avocados and olive oil as well, and is well balanced with the other macronutrients (i.e., proteins and complex carbohydrates from veggies and fruits).
So that’s the skinny on coconut oil! Go ahead—have that Paleo fudge or bulletproof coffee and let the guilt melt away!
Until we meet again, be well,
- Hyman, M. (2016). Eat fat, get thin. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.
- Lawrence, GD. (2013). Dietary fats and health: dietary recommendations in the context of scientific evidence. Adv Nutr, Volume 4 (Issue 3), pp. 294-302.