Coconut oil: is it healthy or harmful?

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Coconut oil: is it healthy or harmful?

Coconut oil: is it healthy or harmful?

Very often a new food trend arrives, promising a healthier heart, increased metabolism, or overall longevity and general health. These trends come and go, with varying degrees of popularity and success, but coconut oil, with myriad health benefits, seems to have exceptional staying power.

That may be because 72 percent of the public think it’s a healthy addition to their diets, according to a 2016 survey by The New York Times and Morning Consult. Coconut oil, which comes from extracting the fat from the white interior of a coconut, is so popular that it can be found not only in small health food stores, but also in major supermarket chains alongside other cooking oils. such as olive and canola.

The rub? While many surveyed Americans believed coconut oil was a health food, only 37 percent of nutritionists agreed. That could be due to its saturated fat content, which is even higher than butter (a tablespoon of butter has 7 grams of saturated fat compared to 12 grams in a tablespoon of coconut oil). Consuming high levels of saturated fat has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Perhaps that’s why a professor at the University of Freiburg called coconut oil “pure poison” at a July conference.

Dr. Jennifer Haythe, a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center and co-director of the Women’s Heart Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, to understand if incorporating coconut oil into your diet makes sense, and how it compares to other cooking oils when it comes to heart health.

Is cooking with coconut oil as healthy as some people say it is?

Probably not. It is high in saturated fat. Butter is 64 percent saturated fat, while coconut oil is 90 percent saturated fat. The reason people think it might be healthy is that it contains lauric acid, which increases HDL cholesterol (the good kind), which in turn protects against heart attacks and strokes. But it also raises LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), which contributes to narrowing of the arteries and increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.

What do studies show about the effect of coconut oil on the heart?

There really isn’t any data to support that it’s good for your heart or that it improves heart health. There is a lot of data on the use of coconut oil in mice and rabbits, but there isn’t a lot of real, solid data looking at coconut oil in humans. In 2016, researchers reviewed the findings of about 21 studies looking at the effect of coconut oil or coconut oil products on cholesterol. Compared to unsaturated oils like olive, sunflower, safflower, and corn oil, coconut oil actually increased your HDL, LDL, and total cholesterol. Again, these are not studies that look at survival or mortality or the incidence of heart disease. These are studies that only look at cholesterol levels per se. And then people extrapolate from there.

Are there advantages to cooking with coconut oil?

For people who cook at very high temperatures, coconut oil is good because it has a very high smoke point. That means it won’t smoke at very high temperatures, which is a healthier environment for people to cook in. It has a semi-solid quality when left at room temperature, so there are some people who think it can be useful to use it as a replacement for cooking things that would use butter, like baked goods.

What oils rate highly in terms of heart health?

Olive oil is definitely the best. It has the least amount of saturated fat and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease. Comparatively speaking, a tablespoon of coconut oil has six times the amount of saturated fat as a tablespoon of olive oil. 

Canola oil is low in saturated fat and is also a liquid at room temperature. It has a higher smoking point than olive oil, so it can be safely used for high-heat cooking, but people don’t always like the taste of it. 

Flaxseed oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, which may contribute to heart health. Avocado oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which can promote healthy cholesterol levels. 

It also has a high smoke point and is used for frying, sautéing, and roasting, but it may be too expensive for some people to use regularly. Nut oils like walnut oil are good, because nuts are part of the Mediterranean diet, but they can be very expensive.

How much olive oil do you recommend consuming daily?

If you’re in good health, about two tablespoons a day can reduce your risk of heart disease due to the beneficial polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats in olive oil. A tablespoon serving has about 14 grams of fat, with the majority being heart-healthy monounsaturated fats.

What oils should be avoided?

I would avoid palm oil, which is very high in saturated fat, as well as oils that are labeled as partially hydrogenated, such as vegetable oil. They contain trans fat and may increase your risk of heart disease. In 2015, the US Food and Drug Administration ruled that manufacturers must remove all trans fat from processed foods by June 18, 2018, but that deadline has been extended to January 1, 2020.

As for coconut oil, it can be used sparingly as the data is not yet available. In general, if your diet is mostly olive oil, then it’s okay to have a little coconut oil here and there. It’s not going to kill you.

Jennifer Haythe, MD, specializes in pulmonary hypertension, heart failure, and heart transplantation. She is a cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian / Columbia University Irving Medical Center and co-director of the Women’s Heart Center at Columbia University Irving Medical Center, she has a special interest in chronic thromboembolic pulmonary hypertension (CTEPH) and the care of pregnant women with cardiovascular diseases.

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