Coconut oil: You can’t browse social media — or the grocery store shelves — these days without running across it. The sweet-smelling tropical staple is rumored to slow aging, help your heart and thyroid, protect against illnesses like Alzheimer’s, arthritis and diabetes, and even help you lose weight.
People are using it in everything from smoothies to bulletproof coffee, a mug of java spiked with coconut oil and butter. Should you sign up for an oil change?
Good News, Bad News
Coconut oil is made by pressing the fat from the white “meat” inside the giant nut. About 84% of its calories come from saturated fat. To compare, 14% of olive oil’s calories are from saturated fat and 63% of butter’s are.
“This explains why, like butter and lard, coconut oil is solid at room temperature with a long shelf life and the ability to withstand high cooking temperatures,” says registered dietitian Lisa Young, PhD. And it’s the reason coconut oil has a bad rap from many health officials.
But there may be a saving grace. Coconut oil’s saturated fat is made up mostly of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. Some people say your body handles them differently than the longer-chain fats in liquid vegetable oils, dairy, and fatty meats.
Is It Good for Your Heart?
The American Heart Association says to limit saturated fat to no more than 13 grams a day. That’s the amount found in about one tablespoon of coconut oil.
Fans of coconut oil point to studies that suggest the MCT-saturated fat in coconut could boost your HDL or “good” cholesterol. This, they claim, makes it less bad for your heart health than the saturated fat in animal-based foods like cheese and steak or products containing trans fats.
But it also raises your LDL “bad” cholesterol.
A quick cholesterol lesson:
- LDL — helps form plaque that blocks your arteries
- HDL — helps remove LDL
“But just because coconut oil can raise HDL cholesterol doesn't mean that it’s great for your heart,” Young says. “It’s not known if the rise in beneficial cholesterol outweighs any rise in harmful cholesterol.”