Whether it’s going in our cookies or on our faces, we’ve come to accept coconut oil as a many-headed beast, offering myriad health benefits. But coconut oil’s reputation as a miracle food is overblown at this point, we’re sad to report.
The major issue is that coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat, which is much higher than most other plant oils, explains Holly Andersen, MD, a cardiologist at New York Presbyterian Hospital. Even butter is “only” 64% saturated fat. This is worrying because eating too many saturated fats has been linked to higher risks for heart disease, as opposed to consuming more mono- and polyunsaturated fats, like those found in nuts and olive oil.
Dr. Andersen says saturated fats are composed of chains of single carbon bonds, which gives them a molecularly flatter shape. “We think that flat fat gets laid down in the arteries much easier than fat that is crumpled up,” she says.
Eating saturated fats also causes your liver to produce more of both your “good” and “bad” cholesterols (HDL and LDL, respectively). It’s thought that LDL cholesterol helps create plaque that builds up in your arteries, increasing your chances for heart disease.
However, it’s actually unclear how bad the saturated fat in coconut oil, specifically, is for the heart.
For starters, all saturated fats are not created equal; the kind of saturated fat in meat, for example, is different (and might have different effects) than the saturated fat found in plant-based oils. About half of the saturated fat in coconut oil, for example, comes from lauric acid, which has been linked to raising your levels of HDL cholesterol, which is generally considered to be a good thing. But the studies on coconut oil’s influence on cholesterol levels have their issues. Most of them aren’t looking at humans, and those that are tend to be short-term studies, so it’s hard to say what effect coconut oil has on long-term heart health, good or bad.
There are researchers who argue that saturated fat, in general, might be less of the nutritional bogeyman its reputation would suggest, because even if it does raise your total cholesterol levels, the research isn’t clear yet whether that actually leads to heart disease in the long run. The bottom line is that, at this point, the science is far from settled.
In the meantime, Dr. Andersen suggests sticking to a mantra of moderation: Although it’s fine to swap out the usual butter or olive oil for coconut every once in a while, that should probably be done sparingly.