The Cooper Institute
 

Founded in 1970 by the "Father of Aerobics"
Kenneth H. Cooper MD, MPH

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Should You Be Nuts Over Coconuts?

Posted in
Eat better

Monday, Jun 26, 2017

There has been a lot of hype about the purported health benefits of coconut oil over the past few years.  However, most of this enthusiasm has come from celebrities, the media and other non-scientific sources.  On June 16, 2017 the American Heart Association came out with an official position on coconut oil. In a nutshell, coconut oil is extremely high in saturated fat; which has an adverse effect on blood levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol.  Therefore, one long-standing dietary strategy to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease has been to limit the amount of saturated fat in the diet. Of note, no reputable evidence-based health organization in the U.S. has ever promoted coconut oil as being beneficial to health.

Over the past few years, a number of claims have been made regarding the benefits of dietary coconut oil (DCO). Weight loss and improved heart health are among the most commonly purported health benefits of DCO. Because I’m a big proponent of the old adage ‘if it seems too good to be true, it probably is’, let’s take an objective look at what the science says.

First off, while dietary saturated fats tend to increase blood levels of LDL-cholesterol (the bad cholesterol), not all saturated fatty acids are exactly alike. Dietary saturated fatty acids fall in two categories based on how many carbon atoms are contained in their chemical structure. Medium-chain saturated fatty acids contain between 8-12 carbon atoms, while long-chain saturated fatty acids contain between 14-18 carbon atoms. Some saturated fatty acids raise blood levels of LDL-cholesterol, while others do not. DCO contains ~90% of its calories from saturated fat, and is relatively high in lauric acid, a medium-chain saturated fatty acid which has been clearly shown to increase blood levels of both LDL-cholesterol and HDL-cholesterol.1  While this modest boost in HDL-cholesterol from consumption of DCO has received much attention from fitness and health enthusiasts, the increase in LDL-cholesterol seems to have been ignored by most of them. Most studies on DCO and blood cholesterol have been short-term, lasting only several weeks. Therefore, as stated by Walter Willett, M.D., from the Harvard School of Public Health “we really don’t know how coconut oil affects heart disease…it’s still probably not the best choice among the many available oils to reduce the risk of heart disease.”

So, until we know a great deal more about the long-term effects of dietary coconut oil on health, it’s best to stick with the American Heart Association and Cooper Clinic recommendation to limit saturated fats to <7% of total daily calories. It’s not problematic at all to use DCO sparingly, but you should wait before you hop on the bandwagon and significantly increase your DCO intake.

You might be interested in the comparison between olive oil and coconut oil in Table 1 below:

Table 1.  A comparison between 1 tablespoon of olive oil and 1 tablespoon of coconut oil.

 
Olive Oil
Coconut Oil
Calories per Tablespoon About 130 About 130
Total Fat 13 grams 13 grams
Percentage of Saturated Fat 8% 90%
Percentage of Monounsaturated Fat 78% 6%
Evidence of Heart-Health Benefits Very Strong None

 

What about Coconut Water?

Now that’s a horse of a different color! Coconut water, which is derived from the liquid center of the coconut, contains no saturated fat, is relatively low in calories and sodium, and is rich in potassium and antioxidants. While some claim that coconut water is the ideal fluid replacement post-exercise, this may not be entirely accurate. Sweat contains ~30 times more sodium than potassium, thus sodium is the major electrolyte that needs to be replaced post-exercise. In order to replace sodium losses, you might consider munching on a few pretzels with your coconut water after a long and sweaty workout.

 

Reference

1Grundy, S.M. (1994).  Influence of stearic acid on cholesterol metabolism relative to other long-chain fatty acids. Am J Clin Nutr. 60:986S-990S.