WebMD BlogsFood and Fitness

How Healthy Is Coconut Oil, Really?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD - Blogs
By Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RDRegistered dietitianAugust 27, 2018
From the WebMD Archives

Is it just me, or are the headlines about coconut oil enough to give you whiplash? Way back when, coconut oil was an artery-clogging public health enemy. Then it was a superfood darling and miracle cure-all. Now looks like it’s starting to fall out of favor again.

The American Heart Association released an advisory last year that recommended against using it. And a Harvard University professor made waves recently when she accused the oil of being “pure poison.”

So what gives?

The flip-flopping over coconut oil centers around the kind of fat it contains. Coconut oil is more than 80 percent saturated fat, the type associated with higher cholesterol levels, a risk factor for heart disease. Coconut oil actually has more saturated fat than butter or lard.

There’s some evidence that the saturated fat in coconut oil doesn’t raise cholesterol. Half of its fat is a kind called lauric acid, which doesn’t appear to boost “bad” LDL cholesterol as much as other types do (and might actually raise “good” HDL levels). So the net effect on your cholesterol level just might be neutral. Plus, the really bad effects of coconut oil happen when it’s hydrogenated, which creates trans fats. The kind sold in jars that people use in their kitchens is not hydrogenated.

Because it was seen as a healthy fat, can be used in vegan recipes, and is so versatile (working as a solid or a liquid), coconut oil has been hugely popular. Online recipes call for liberal scoops of it in everything from stir-fries to brownies, and testimonials claim it cures everything from crow’s feet to chronic disease. In a recent survey, almost three-quarters of consumers labeled the oil as being “healthy”.

But the AHA points to studies comparing coconut oil to other fats and oils (such as olive and safflower) that show coconut oil does indeed raises LDL cholesterol. They also note that there aren’t any proven positive effects of coconut oil that might offset that risk.

So where does that leave us? As with a lot of things, I favor a middle-of-the-road approach. If you like the flavor and versatility of coconut oil, I say go for it–with a few cautions: First, keep using other oils like olive and canola too. Unlike coconut oil, they’re shown in research to be heart-healthy.

It’s also smart to be wary of coconut oil claims that seem too good to be true. For instance, there’s a lot of hype about coconut oil and weight loss because it contains something called MCT (medium-chain triglycerides). MCTs have been found in some research to be burned quicker by the body than other fats. But those studies use pure MCT oil, while coconut oil is only about 20 percent MCT.

There’s also not enough evidence that coconut oil helps conditions like Alzheimer’s or diabetes, though using coconut oil as part of a healthy diet is certainly a reasonable approach to take.

Finally, remember that using coconut oil in place of butter or another oil doesn’t make that recipe “clean” or even healthy. Like all fats, coconut oil is calorie-dense (about 240 for two tablespoons) and it doesn’t magically turn brownies or cookies into health food. Dessert is still dessert, no matter what kind of oil is used.

WebMD Blog
© 2018 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.
Blog Topics:
About the Author
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD

Sally Kuzemchak is a registered dietitian in Columbus, Ohio. An award-winning reporter and writer, Sally has been published in magazines such as Health, Family Circle, and Eating Well and is a Contributing Editor to Parents magazine. She is the author of the book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She blogs at Real Mom Nutrition, a "no-judgments" zone all about feeding families.

More from the Food and Fitness Blog

  • photo of almonds

    Grab and Go Snacks for Type 2

    You’ve likely been there – heading out the door, knowing that you should grab a snack on your way out because you’re not sure what food options will be available at your destination. Whatever the ...

  • photo of gina leg exercises

    How to Get Strong, Toned Legs Without Squats or Lunges

    Squats and lunges are the go-to exercises for strengthening the lower body, but they're not the only options.

View all posts on Food and Fitness

Latest Blog Posts on WebMD

View all blog posts

Important: The opinions expressed in WebMD Blogs are solely those of the User, who may or may not have medical or scientific training. These opinions do not represent the opinions of WebMD. Blogs are not reviewed by a WebMD physician or any member of the WebMD editorial staff for accuracy, balance, objectivity, or any other reason except for compliance with our Terms and Conditions. Some of these opinions may contain information about treatments or uses of drug products that have not been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. WebMD does not endorse any specific product, service or treatment.

Do not consider WebMD Blogs as medical advice. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider because of something you have read on WebMD. You should always speak with your doctor before you start, stop, or change any prescribed part of your care plan or treatment. WebMD understands that reading individual, real-life experiences can be a helpful resource, but it is never a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a qualified health care provider. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or dial 911 immediately.

Read More