Features January 2017 Issue

The Pros and Cons of Coconut Oil for Cardiovascular Health

This tasty fat may not be as healthy as many people think it is. A new study raises questions about its many health claims.

Recently, coconut oil has been ascribed with powers of a super food. According to various sources, coconut oil can lower cardiovascular risk, help you lose weight and prevent and treat diabetes. Some even claim it can reverse Alzheimer’s disease.

This all sounds encouraging, but how much of it is true? Should we rush to substitute coconut oil for other oils in our diet to reap its health benefits? Or, should we stick with the oils that have a proven track record?

Better to use coconut oil sparingly, says dietitian Katherine Patton, RD, LD, with Cleveland Clinic’s Preventive Cardiology & Rehabilitation Section. “Most research has shown nothing conclusive about the benefits of coconut oil,” she says.

coconut oil

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Coconut oil is becoming more popular for cooking, as well as an ingredient in beauty products and home remedies.

Where the Misunderstanding Lies

All fatty acids are formed from carbon chains. Medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA) have six to 12 carbons and are readily absorbed by the body. Long-chain fatty acids (LCFA) have more than 12 carbons. They are transported through the bloodstream to the liver by lipoproteins. In the process, they may be deposited anywhere in the body.

Medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oils are comprised of MCFAs. Most have eight or 10 carbons. These oils are readily absorbed by the body and utilized for energy. MCT oils are a good food for athletes, as well as patients with fat absorption disorders.

But coconut oil isn’t exactly an MCT: 47 percent of coconut oil has 12 carbons, and 16 percent has eight or 10 carbons. Some people think it behaves like a MCFA, while others say it is more like a LCFA. No one knows for sure. However, it is not equivalent to other MCT oils and cannot be assumed to have the same health benefits.

Claims May be Exaggerated

That coconut oil may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease is a stretch. The oil is 92 percent saturated fat and high in calories—two questionable qualities that should raise a warning flag.

“If you have heart disease or high cholesterol—meaning high LDL and low HDL cholesterol—you should be decreasing your intake of saturated fat and increasing polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats to lower your cholesterol,” she says.

American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology guidelines advise limiting saturated fat five to six percent of your diet. In a 2,000-calorie-a-day diet, that would be 100 calories, or 11 to 13 grams, of saturated fat. One tablespoon of coconut oil has 115 calories (12 grams) of saturated fat, so a drizzle may exceed your entire allotment of saturated fat for a day.

Other Claims Debunked

Can coconut oil help you lose weight? It is less than one calorie per gram lighter than other fats. That hardly qualifies it for inclusion in a weight-loss diet. “Excess calories from any source will end up being stored as fat,” says Patton.

How about its effect on diabetes? A study of lauric acid—the main fatty acid in coconut oil—showed it increased insulin secretion in mice. No studies have been performed in humans. There is no evidence that coconut oil increases insulin sensitivity in humans or can help prevent or treat diabetes.

Coconut Oil’s Good Points

Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and has a creamy texture. That makes it a popular butter substitute for vegetarians. However, canola, corn and olive oil are also plant-based fats that contain greater amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat. “These are the types of fats we want majority of our fat calories to come from,” says Patton.

The chemical composition of coconut oil aside, there’s no doubt it is delicious. An occasional splash will enhance the coconutty taste in a recipe. And it’s just fine to treat yourself, says Patton.

“There’s room in your diet for a variety of fats. It’s okay to use coconut oil, but be cautious about your portion size,” she says.

That advice goes for cooking oils and everything in your diet. Portion control and moderation are key.When establishing a heart-healthy eating plan, pay close attention to saturated fat and trans fat content, calories, added sugars, sodium and additives such as nitrates and phosphates. Reducing your intake of these potentially harmful items can help boost your odds of preserving the health of your heart and your overall physical well-being.

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