A quick look at my Pinterest will give you a plethora of things coconut oil can do for you: condition your hair, get rid of your allergies, and of course, cure cancer. Whenever something claims to cure cancer a huge red flag pops up and that claim can almost immediately be thrown out. It may not cure cancer, but can it make your hair as sleek and shiny as a baby otter? Absolutely.
It a health food? 72% of polled Americans* think so. And why wouldn’t they? Any health food store you walk into is practically overflowing with the stuff. Besides skin care, it’s in lattes, cold sore medicine, and, most confusing to me, cookies that supposedly help you lose weight.
Unfortunately, there’s little to no evidence to support any of these claims. It won’t fix your allergies or cure Alzheimer’s. The most depressing part is that falafel fried in coconut oil is less healthy than frying them in butter. That coconut-oil-fried falafel is more likely to raise your risk of heart disease, which is currently the leading cause of death for Americans.
According to a new American Heart Association advisory, coconut oil is not as healthy as we’ve been led to believe. Simply speaking, all fats and oils are made up of three components: polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and saturated fats. Some foods also include trans fats. The order of “best” to “worst” types of fats is: polyunsaturated, monounsaturated, saturated, and last is trans fats. Trans fats are their own beast. They are chemically altered to make them solid at room temperature while most unsaturated fats are liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats tend to come from animal products like butter and lard, and unsaturated fats tend to come from plants like olives and sunflowers. However this is not always the case– salmon contains unsaturated fats.
The percentage of each is what determines if a fat is “good” or “bad”. The “bad” fats raise low density lipoprotein, aka LDL cholesterol. This is the type that causes buildup of plaque in your blood vessels, which in turn, causes heart disease. “Good” fats, on the other hand, may help to increase high density lipoprotein, aka HDL cholesterol which can help to prevent heart disease. Though our bodies need both types of cholesterol, we can make all the LDL we need ourselves. This is not the case with HDL, which is why the AHA says we should eat more unsaturated fats.
Coconut oil comes from a plant, but is a shocking 82% saturated fat. Butter, on the other hand, is only 62%. This is the main reason that the American Heart association advises against consuming too much coconut oil, a stance they have taken since the 1960s. The AHA recommends switching out saturated fats for unsaturated fats, but not cutting fats out altogether.
One of the claims that proponents of coconut oil make is that it has a higher proportion of medium chain triglycerides than other oils. These are easily absorbed by the body and can help some very specific diseases, but unless you have a metabolic problem, you get no extra nutritional benefit from them. Besides, coconut oil is only about 15% medium chain triglycerides.
However, if you like coconut oil, you shouldn’t feel too bad for eating it. The AHA recommends getting less than 10% of your calories from saturated fats, which is about 22 grams or five teaspoons of coconut oil a day, assuming that’s where all of your saturated fat comes from. Unrefined coconut oil is slightly better than refined as refined coconut oil can contain trans fats, but as long as you’re eating it in moderation, it won’t really make too much of a difference.