Coconut Oil and Cholesterol


Coconut oil has been in the headlines in recent years for various health reasons. In particular, experts go back and forth debating about whether or not it’s good for cholesterol levels.

Some experts say you should avoid coconut oil because of its high levels of saturated fat (saturated fat is known to raise cholesterol).

Others say that the structure of the fat in coconut oil makes it less likely to add to fat buildup in the body and that, for that reason, it’s healthy.

There are a lot of conflicting reports about whether or not coconut oil can help:

Research hasn’t been definitive, but there are many facts known about this oil. These may help you choose whether or not to incorporate coconut oil into your diet. Consulting your physician is also a good idea.

What’s coconut oil?

Coconut oil is a tropical oil derived from the dried nut of the coconut palm tree. Its nutritional components include the following:

  • It containsTrusted Source nearly 13.5 grams of total fat (11.2 grams of which are saturated fat) per tablespoon.
  • It also contains about 0.8 grams of monounsaturated fat and about 3.5 grams of polyunsaturated fat, which are both considered “healthy” fats.
  • It doesn’t contain cholesterol.
  • It’s high in vitamin E and polyphenolsTrusted Source.

According to the Mayo Clinic, the oil from fresh coconuts contains a high proportion of medium chain fatty acids. These don’t seem to be stored in fat tissue as easily as are long chain fatty acids.

Experts say that coconut oil’s lauric acid, which is a healthy type of saturated fatty acid, is quickly burned up by the body for energy rather than stored. That’s why some people think of coconut oil as a potential weight loss tool.

All types of fat have the same number of calories. It’s only the difference in the fatty acid makeup that makes each fat distinct from the others.

In a 2015 studyTrusted Source, researchers found that mice gained less weight when eating a diet high in coconut oil than they did when eating one high in soybean oil. This was the result even though coconut oil contains 91 percentTrusted Source saturated fat to soybean oil’s 15 percent.

More human studies need to be completed to confirm this observation.

Benefits of coconut oil

In addition to being touted for weight loss benefits, coconut oil has been shown to have other beneficial properties.

It has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory characteristics, and it can be easily absorbed into the body for energy.

Another 2015 study found that a combination of daily coconut oil intake and exercise could lower blood pressure and even bring it back to normal values.

The cholesterol factor

Another studyTrusted Source compared the effects on cholesterol levels of butter, coconut fat, and safflower oil. The study found that coconut oil was effective at lowering “bad” LDL and triglyceride levels and raising “good” HDL levels.

Despite some research on whether or not coconut oil is helpful for cholesterol levels, the verdict is still out. As it stands, coconut oil isn’t a widely recommended oil for cholesterol health in the way that other oils like olive oil are.

In 2013 guidanceTrusted Source, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends that coconut oil should be used less often than other healthier oils that have known health benefits, such as olive oil.

This is a swiftly changing field as new studies of dietary oils continue to emerge. We do know that higher intake of saturated fats is associated with cardiovascular disease. Some oils are less safe because of how they’re processed.

It’s good to stay on top of news to see what else is discovered about the effects of coconut oil on cholesterol levels. That will help you get a clearer picture of whether or not coconut oil is something you want to add into your diet.

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Last medically reviewed on August 27, 2018
Medically reviewed by Debra Rose Wilson, Ph.D., MSN, R.N., IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT — Written by the Healthline Editorial Team — Updated on August 27, 2018

Why Is Coconut Oil Good for You? A Healthy Oil for Cooking

A great example of a controversial food is coconut oil. It is generally praised by the media, but some scientists doubt it lives up to the hype.

It has mainly gotten a bad rap because it is very high in saturated fat. But new studies suggest saturated fat is not as unhealthy as previously believed.

Is coconut oil an artery-clogging junk food or a perfectly healthy cooking oil? This article looks at the evidence.

Coconut Oil Has a Unique Composition of Fatty Acids

Coconut oil is very different from most other cooking oils and contains a unique composition of fatty acids.

The fatty acids are about 90% saturated. But coconut oil is perhaps most unique for its high content of the saturated fat lauric acid, which makes up around 40% of its total fat content (1Trusted Source).

This makes coconut oil highly resistant to oxidation at high heat. For this reason, it is very suitable for high-heat cooking methods like frying (2Trusted Source).

Coconut oil is relatively rich in medium-chain fatty acids, containing around 7% caprylic acid and 5% capric acid (1Trusted Source).

Epileptic patients on ketogenic diets often use these fats to induce ketosis. However, coconut oil is not suitable for this purpose as it has a relatively poor ketogenic effect (3Trusted Source4).

While lauric acid is often considered a medium-chain fatty acid, scientists debate whether this classification is appropriate.

The next chapter provides a detailed discussion of lauric acid.

SUMMARYCoconut oil is rich in several types of saturated fat that are otherwise uncommon. These include lauric acid and medium-chain fatty acids.

Coconut oil contains about 40% lauric acid.

In comparison, most other cooking oils contain only trace amounts of it. An exception is palm kernel oil, which provides 47% lauric acid (1Trusted Source).

Lauric acid is an intermediate between the long-chain and medium-chain fatty acids.

While often considered medium-chain, it is digested and metabolized differently from the true medium-chain fatty acids and has more in common with the long-chain fatty acids (45Trusted Source6Trusted Source).

Studies show that lauric acid increases the blood levels of cholesterol, but this is mostly due to an increase in cholesterol bound to high-density lipoproteins (HDL) (7Trusted Source8Trusted Source).

An increase in HDL cholesterol, relative to total cholesterol, has been associated with a reduced risk of heart disease (9Trusted Source).

SUMMARYCoconut oil is exceptionally rich in lauric acid, a rare saturated fat that seems to improve the composition of blood lipids.

Coconut Oil May Improve Blood Lipids

Studies indicate that regularly eating coconut oil improves the levels of lipids circulating in the blood, potentially reducing the risk of heart disease.

One large, randomized controlled study in 91 middle-aged adults examined the effects of eating 50 grams of coconut oil, butter or extra-virgin olive oil daily for a month (10Trusted Source).

The coconut oil diet significantly increased the “good” HDL cholesterol, compared to butter and extra-virgin olive oil.

Similarly to extra-virgin olive oil, coconut oil didn’t increase the “bad” LDL cholesterol (10Trusted Source).

Another study in women with abdominal obesity found that coconut oil increased HDL and lowered the LDL to HDL ratio, while soybean oil increased total and LDL cholesterol and decreased HDL (11Trusted Source).

These results are somewhat inconsistent with older studies showing that coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol compared to safflower oil, a source of polyunsaturated fat, although it didn’t raise it as much as butter (12Trusted Source13Trusted Source).

Taken together, these studies indicate coconut oil may be protective against heart disease when compared to certain other sources of saturated fat, such as butter and soybean oil.

However, there is yet no evidence that it affects hard endpoints like heart attacks or strokes.

SUMMARYStudies show that coconut oil may raise the levels of the “good” HDL cholesterol, relative to total cholesterol, potentially decreasing the risk of heart disease.

Coconut Oil May Help You Lose Weight

There is some evidence that coconut oil may help you lose weight.

In a study of 40 women with abdominal obesity, coconut oil reduced waist circumference compared to soybean oil while also improving several other health markers (11Trusted Source).

Another controlled study in 15 women found that virgin coconut oil reduced appetite compared to extra-virgin olive oil, when added to a mixed breakfast (14Trusted Source).

These benefits are possibly due to medium-chain fatty acids, which may potentially lead to a modest decrease in body weight (15Trusted Source).

However, scientists have pointed out that the evidence on medium-chain fatty acids cannot be applied to coconut oil (16Trusted Source).

Despite some promising evidence, research is still limited and some researchers question coconut oil’s weight loss benefits (17Trusted Source).

SUMMARYA few studies suggest coconut oil may reduce belly fat and suppress appetite. But the true weight loss benefits are controversial and only moderate at best.

Historical Populations That Ate a Lot of Coconut Were Healthy

If coconut fat is unhealthy, you would expect to see some health problems in populations that eat a lot of it.

In the past, populations of indigenous people who got a large percentage of their calorie intake from coconuts were much healthier than many people in Western society.

The Tokelauans, for example, got more than 50% of their calories from coconuts and were the biggest consumers of saturated fat in the world. The Kitavans ate up to 17% of calories as saturated fat, mostly from coconuts.

Both of these populations appeared to have no traces of heart disease despite the high saturated fat intake and were overall in exceptional health (18Trusted Source19Trusted Source).

However, these indigenous people followed healthy lifestyles overall, ate a lot of seafood and fruit, and consumed virtually no processed foods.

It is interesting to note that they relied on coconuts, coconut flesh and coconut cream — not the processed coconut oil you buy in supermarkets today.

Nevertheless, these observational studies indicate that people can stay healthy on a diet high in saturated fat from coconuts (18Trusted Source19Trusted Source).

Just keep in mind that the good health of these indigenous Pacific populations reflected their healthy lifestyle, not necessarily their high coconut intake.

In the end, the benefits of coconut oil probably depend on your overall lifestyle, physical activity and diet. If you follow an unhealthy diet and don’t exercise, a high intake of coconut oil won’t do you any good.

The original article can be found here


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