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:
“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.”
At best, she says, coconut oil could have a neutral impact on heart health, but she doesn’t consider it heart-healthy.
Yes, some recent studies have questioned the role saturated fat plays in heart disease. Yes, there have been headlines hailing the return of butter. But it’s still a good idea to choose your fats wisely.
A 2015 Harvard study found that replacing calories from saturated fat in your diet with calories from refined carbs like white bread and soda won’t lower heart disease risk. But swapping saturated fats like coconut oil and butter with unsaturated options -- like those in nuts, seeds, and liquid vegetable oil -- will.
What does that mean for you? While Young suggests using cholesterol-free coconut oil to replace butter or lard when you’re cooking or baking, she says you should get most of your fat from unsaturated sources including olive oil, avocado, and nuts.
Coconut oil fans point out that people in places like Polynesia and Sri Lanka eat high amounts of coconut products daily but don’t seem to have high rates of heart disease.
But there’s more to the story. “It’s likely that other factors like genetics, overall diet and daily physical activity may act to neutralize any negative impact that a high coconut intake can have on heart health,” Young says.
Can It Help With Weight Loss?
Many people think so. A quirk of MCTs like the ones in coconut oil is that your body processes them slightly differently than other dietary fats. You’re more likely to burn off their calories than convert them to body fat. So eat spoonfuls of coconut oil and watch the fat melt away, right? Not so fast.
Coconut is high in calories. You can’t just add it to your diet without cutting back elsewhere and expect to lose weight, Young says. “You definitely don’t want to think of it as a freebie food that you can eat as much of as you want.”
What Else Can It Do?
There’s a claim that coconut oil can reduce the mental losses from Alzheimer’s disease by providing an alternate energy source for your brain. But right now the evidence is mostly word-of-mouth and not from research.
Coconut oil does have antioxidants, compounds that may help reduce the risk of disease. But Young says you’ll likely get a bigger antioxidant bang for your buck from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
You may also see coconut butter -- coconut flesh that’s been pureed into a creamy spread. It has more fiber than the oil. Coconut flour is another higher-fiber option that you can use when baking.
What’s the Bottom Line?
While coconut oil shouldn’t be considered off-limits, it doesn’t quite live up to the hype, either.
“This is another case of it if sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Young says. It’s fine to add small amounts to your diet. But keep the focus on healthier fat sources along with vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean proteins.
If you want a product with the most flavor, look for jars labeled virgin. That means it’s made with a process that will help it keep more of its tropical taste.