5 Reasons It's A-OK To Keep Believing In The Health Benefits Of Coconut Oil (According To Science)

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What Is Fractionated Coconut Oil & What Are The Health Concerns, Risks & Benefits Of It's Uses For Diet, Hair, & Skin Care
Self, Health And Wellness

It's kind of complicated.

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 raises some eyebrows and has people second-guessing many previously held assumptions, such as: what is fractionated coconut oil, and how is it different, better or worse than virgin and refined coconut oil? Is coconut good for you — or is it bad for you? Are some uses for coconut oil healthier than others? And how much is too much?

Let's break it all down.

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What The AHA Is Saying

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 nothing new coming from the AHA, however, their statement breaks down older studies conducted on saturated fats and their link to high-cholesterol levels (their 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 and soybean) over those high in saturated fat (like coconut).

The benefit? A 30 percent drop in your risk of heart disease.

So does this mean coconut oil isn't healthy? That's the question a few media outlets began raising. And then everybody went cuckoo for coconuts ...

Calling Out the Coconut

Publications, most notably USA Today, used the AHA's statement to claim that coconut oil definitely isn't healthy for us and that it has "never been."

Paleo preachers and ketogenic diet die-hards (all lovers of coconut oil) took this as shots fired and began disputing it.

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What the Skeptics are Saying

1. The research is misleading and isn't painting the full picture.

Like 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" and was used to show the benefits of swapping saturated fat for more polyunsaturated fat. Recent 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.

He also brought up a more recent trial, which showed that saturated fat can actually be beneficial in some cases.

Which kicks off the next point...

2. The data used 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," meaning that coconut oil's saturated fat content might not be as damaging as they say it is.

3. Corn and soy oils, which are being recommended over coconut oil, 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".

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

He's been called out for his connection to Unilever Food Solutions, which manufactures several vegetable oil brands.

5. Coconut oil isn't all bad.

It still has many health benefits. As Mark Hyman, MD, raves, 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" for having more saturated fat is like saying people who have a larger brain are automatically smarter. It's a blanket statement, eliminating important context.

The Verdict

So, is coconut healthy? The simple answer is yes — to a degree.

There are plenty of benefits to eating coconut oil for health, fitness, and beauty, and there are a variety of types of coconut oil used for each.

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."

Many consider these unrefined forms of coconut to be healthier, however, it becomes solid at room temperature. So instead they use 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. Just this one change makes the oil liquid at room temperature, and extends the product’s shelf life."

So, what should you do with all of this info?

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 a day can give you the energy-boosting, waist-trimming benefits without overdoing it. Faulisi recommends starting off with one tablespoon, and always keep the remainder of your diet in check.

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

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

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