by Mary Saucier Choate, M.S., R.D., L.D.
Dietitian and Food and Nutrition Educator
Coconut oil is getting lots of press these days. The claimed advantages of coconut oil are wide-ranging and include heart health benefits. But according to the science- based Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database (NMCD), there is insufficient evidence on the effectiveness of coconut oil for heart health or other medical conditions. That hasn’t stopped marketers from trying to convince consumers to buy it. In fact, the wide range of promised cures alone is a red flag to savvy consumers. In this article, we’ll review what we know about the fats in coconut oil and how they affect heart health.
Fats and oils are a mixture of all three kinds of fatty acids: monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated. A fat or oil is classified as one of the three kinds based on which fatty acid predominates. Coconut oil is considered to be a saturated fat, because it is composed of 87% saturated fatty acids. Compare this with olive oil (14 percent), canola oil (6 percent) or soybean oil (15 percent).
Saturated fatty acids, including those found in coconut oil, are associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids may decrease heart disease risk. These unsaturated fatty acids have been shown to lower bad LDL cholesterol and raise good HDL cholesterol. This kind of healthful oil is found in soybean, corn, canola, safflower and sunflower seed oils, olives and nuts, as well as in oily fish.
Much has been made of coconut oil’s good cholesterol-boosting effect. Saturated fatty acids such as those found in coconut oil, have been shown to raise levels of both good (HDL) and undesirable (LDL) cholesterol levels in the blood. But raising good cholesterol levels doesn’t wipe out that fact that it raises harmful cholesterol levels also. Unsaturated oils seem to be the best choice for lowering the bad cholesterol levels and raising the good.
Some argue that the saturated fatty acid in coconut oil, known as stearic acid, has a neutral effect on cholesterol levels. Some studies have shown this to be true. But in other studies it has been shown to lower both good and bad cholesterol levels, and may have a negative effect on the blood’s ability to neutralize blood clots. In any case, stearic acid makes up only 3% of the fat in coconut oil.
Major studies conclude that heart disease risk is reduced most effectively when trans fatty acids (from hydrogenated oils) and saturated fatty acids are replaced with unsaturated fatty acids.
It is safe on top of your skin, however. According to Paula Begoun, who gathers science-based consumer cosmetics information on her site, “The Cosmetics Cop,” coconut oil has emollient properties for skin. Coconut also has degreasing and cleansing properties, which is why detergent cleansing agents are frequently made from coconut oil.
Bottom line: Major health organizations have not changed their advice on the benefits of unsaturated plant oils in place of saturated fats. Current research shows that for best health, a diet full of produce, whole grains, good calcium sources, lean protein, and oils from plants, nuts and seeds provide the best heath benefits. Information on fats and oils in the diet is undergoing lots of research to learn more about their affects. Stay tuned!
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