Is Coconut Oil Good For You? The Coconut Oil/Cholesterol Controversy Explained

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Is Coconut Oil Good For You? The Coconut Oil/Cholesterol Controversy Explained
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Health And Wellness

It's kind of complicated, but here's how to use it if you decide the benefits outweigh the risks.

By Zach Peter

There has been major buzz lately over everyone's favorite obsession: coconut oil.

The fitness community raves about its fat-burning benefits when incorporated into a healthy diet, while beauty gurus preach about its hair-nourishing properties and the positive role it can play in your skin-care regiment.

But the health concerns, risks and benefits touted by proponents in the health care industry based on multiple studies have been put into question by a statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) in which they claim "coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat, and studies show it raises LDL 'bad' cholesterol as much as butter, beef fat or palm oil."

This statement's warning about the relationship between coconut oil and cholesterol raises has people second-guessing many previously held assumptions.

Is coconut oil good or bad for you?

Rather than offer a overly-simplistic answer, let's take a look at the facts about coconut oil and cholesterol, other potential health benefits, and whether some uses of coconut oil are healthier than others.

How does coconut oil affect cholesterol?

According to the AHA, a diet high in saturated fat contributes to a higher risk of heart disease (think, high blood pressure, stroke, heart attack, etc). This is nothing new coming from the AHA, however, their statement breaks down older studies conducted on saturated fats and their link to high-cholesterol levels, an indicator of heart health.

The statement concludes that we should replace foods high in saturated fats with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats, swapping them for a diet higher in carbs and opting for vegetable oils (like corn oil and soybean oil) over those high in saturated fat (like coconut oil).

The benefit of doing so, they say, could be a 30 percent drop in your risk of heart disease. But does this mean coconut oil isn't healthy?

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Several publications, most notably USA Today, used the AHA's statement to claim that coconut oil has "never been healthy."

Paleo preachers and ketogenic diet die-hards, known lovers of coconut oil, took this as shots fired and began passionately disputing the assertion that coconut oil is bad for you.

Here's what people who believe coconut oil is good for you have to say in its defense:

1. The research used as evidence coconut oil is bad for you is misleading.

The Minnesota Coronary Experiment, for example, "a major controlled clinical trial conducted from 1968 to 1973, which studied the diets of more than 9,000 people at state mental hospitals and a nursing home," was used to show the benefits of swapping saturated fat (i.e., coconut oil) for more polyunsaturated fat (found mostly in nuts, seeds, fish, seed oils, and oysters).

But re-evaluation of that data showed that making the switch actually worsened the long-term health of the trial's participants.

This has some wellness influencers, like documentarian Max Lugavere, putting on their Sherlock Holmes cap and calling the AHA out on it.

Lugavere points to more a recent trial, which showed that saturated fat can actually be beneficial in some cases.

Which kicks off the next point...

2. The data used to say coconut oil is bad for you is out of date.

In a statement on his website, functional medicine expert, Dr. William Cole claims that newer science has come to find that "total cholesterol is a poor predictor for assessing heart attack and stroke risk."

This means that coconut oil's saturated fat content might not be as damaging as the AHA would have us believe.

3. Corn and soy oils, recommended for use over coconut oil by some, are processed foods.

"We have been eating [saturated fats] for hundreds and in some cases thousands of years. The oils that are new to the game — corn, soybean, canola — are highly processed, heat and chemically extracted, and are chemically unstable," says Paul Grewal, MD, author of "Genius Foods."

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4. Dr. Frank Sacks, one of the AHA statement's lead authors, may have a conflict of interest.

Sacks has been called out for his connection to Unilever Food Solutions, which manufactures several vegetable oil brands.

5. Even if coconut oil contribute to high cholesterol, it isn't all bad.

Coconut still provides many health benefits. As Mark Hyman, MD, raves, coconot oil's benefits can range from hormone balancing to fat-burning.

And as registered dietitian Jessica Cording explains, "Research has shown that the specific types of saturated fats found in coconut oil, medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), are metabolized differently from other saturated fatty acids because of their difference in structure."

Basically, not all saturated fats are the same. So saying coconut oil is unhealthy because it has saturated fat is like saying people who have a larger brain are automatically smarter. It's a blanket statement missing important context.

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So, is coconut oil good for you? The simple answer is yes — to a degree.

There are plenty of benefits of coconut oil for health, fitness, and beauty, as well as a variety of types of coconut oil best used to attain each.

Some proven benefits of cocout oil include:

  • Antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Reduced hunger and food cravings
  • Reduced risk of seizures in people with epilepsy
  • Increased HDL (good) cholesterol levels and less harmful LDL (bad) cholesterol levels
  • Increased moisture in dry skin
  • Protection against hair damage

As explained by the people at Annmarie Skin Care, "Oils labeled 'virgin' or 'extra virgin' are typically unrefined, meaning they haven’t been exposed to chemicals that can potentially linger behind to get on your skin, or that may damage some of the natural components of the oil."

Unrefined forms of coconut become solid at room temperature, whereas fractionated coconut oil, "also called 'liquid coconut oil,' [which is basically] a form of the oil that has had the long-chain fatty acids removed via hydrolysis and steam distillation ... makes the oil liquid at room temperature, and extends the product’s shelf life."

How much coconut oil is healthy for you, and how should you use it?

As Los Angeles-based nutritionist and celebrity chef, Shauna Faulisi put it, there's room for coconut oil in your diet, "as long as you're removing sugars and refined carbs and focusing on getting in lots of greens, moderate amounts of high-quality protein, and healthy fats."

Her favorite recommendation for clients is extra virgin olive oil, which she raves is a great anti-inflammatory.

And the same way you probably aren't guzzling jugs of olive oil, it's all about moderation. Two tablespoons of coconut oil per day can give you the energy-boosting, waist-trimming benefits without overdoing it.

Faulisi recommends starting off with one tablespoon, potentially added to your morning coffee, and always keeping the remainder of your diet in check.

If you really want to play it safe, you can swap it out for the other healthy oils, like avocado oil or olive oil.

As far as using coconut oil to hydrate your skin or fix your split ends, nothing so far claims using coconut oil externally has any effect at all on your heart health, so feel free to keep lathering it up!

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Zack Peter has published four books, including "When Life Hands You Lemons... Throw Them At People" and "A Shot of Hope: Real Wisdom from a Real Sibling Warrior Providing Real Hope for Autism." He is currently a contributor for POPSUGAR, weekly host on AfterBuzz TV, and producer of the upcoming documentary, "Sibling Warrior: Healing My Brother's Autism."

This article was originally published at PopSugar. Reprinted with permission from the author.

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