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The Truth About Coconut Oil

Is Coconut Oil Better Than Other Fats and Oils? continued...

Fats are an important part of a healthy diet, but the trick is to eat enough fat, not too much, and choose the best fats as often as possible. The Dietary Guidelines recommend that fats make up 20% to 35% of total calories and saturated fats less than 10%. And even though coconut oil is liquid, the Dietary Guidelines consider it a solid fat that they recommend Americans reduce, along with added sugars.

As long as you keep the amount of saturated fat to less than 10% of calories, the choice is up to you.

"Foods that contain coconut oil are not usually nutrient powerhouses so it is better to choose your saturated fats from foods that are nutrient-rich, like cheese and lean protein," says Connie Diekman, Med, RD, author of The Everything Mediterranean Diet.

Where Is The Evidence?

Coconut oil has some heart-friendly fatty acids (myristic) but more heart-unfriendly fatty acids (lauric), says Roger Clemens, DrPH, spokesman and incoming president of Institute of Food Technologists and member of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines committee.

A meta-analysis of 60 studies evaluated the effects of individual fats on risk of coronary artery disease. A few studies looked at coconut oil and found the combination of fatty acids improved the ratio of total cholesterol: HDL (good) cholesterol but they also raised LDL (bad) cholesterol.

"Saturated fats can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol and even though a few studies showed it may improve the ratio of cholesterol to HDL cholesterol, they also showed an increase in LDL cholesterol and bottom line, any food that increases LDL cholesterol should be limited because LDL cholesterol is the main treatment target for heart disease," Kris Etherton says.

However, there is debate over the role of saturated fat and the role of LDL cholesterol.

Mozaffarian says LDL cholesterol is just one of many biomarkers for heart disease risk. "LDL is important but so is HDL and which is more important and relevant to good health is speculative so we should look beyond LDL in isolation to determine a food's health impact."

Most experts agree that to reduce the risk of heart disease, replacing saturated fats with healthier unsaturated fats is preferred. There is further agreement that more research is needed in the area of fatty acids and its relationship to health.

Sorting Out Fat Confusion

There are two basic categories of fats. Healthy fats are unsaturated and include vegetable oils, fish oils, and plant fats in nuts, avocados, and seeds. These fats should be the primary fats in your diet because they are either neutral or raise HDL cholesterol but don't raise LDL cholesterol.

The less healthy saturated fats found in animal fats and tropical oils, including coconut oil, are allowed, but in lesser amounts because they raise LDL cholesterol. 

Trans fats in processed foods are the worst fats, capable of lowering HDL and increasing LDL, and should be kept as low as possible.

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