Should You be Nuts About Coconut Oil?
Over the past several years, a number of claims have been made regarding the benefits of dietary coconut oil (DCO). Weight loss and improved heart health seem to be the most commonly purported health benefits of DCO. A survey conducted a few years ago reported that 72% of Americans believed coconut oil to be a healthy food. 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, as opposed to what the coconut oil industry or celebrities say. DCO contains ~90% of its calories from saturated fat, and is high in lauric acid, with smaller amounts of myristic and palmitic acids. All three of these saturated fatty acids have been shown to increase blood levels of LDL-cholesterol. We have known for decades that elevated LDL-cholesterol is a major cause of heart attack and stroke because high levels of LDL damage the arterial walls. This damage leads to inflammation and blockages within the arteries, particularly those within the heart (coronary arteries), or those leading to or within the brain.
In 2020, a systematic and rigorous review of the scientific literature regarding DCO and heart health was published in Circulation. Seventeen published randomized clinical trials were included in the review. This analysis showed that DCO significantly increased blood levels of LDL-cholesterol, and had no effect on body weight or body fat when compared with non-tropical vegetable oils. As stated in an accompanying editorial by noted blood lipid scientist Frank Sacks, M.D. of the Harvard School of Public Health, “Coconut oil may be viewed as one of the most deleterious cooking oils that increases risk for cardiovascular disease.”
So until proven otherwise, which is extremely unlikely, it’s best to stick with the American Heart Association and Cooper Clinic recommendation to limit saturated fats to less than 7% of total daily calories. It’s not problematic at all to use DCO very sparingly in cooking, but you would be wise not to hop on the coconut oil bandwagon.
You might be interested in a comparison between olive oil and coconut oil in Table 1 below:
Table 1. A comparison between 1 tablespoon of olive oil and1 tablespoon of coconut oil.
Olive Oil Coconut Oil
Calories per Tablespoon About 130 About 130
Total Fat 13 grams 13 grams
Percentage of Calories From Saturated Fat 8% 90%
Percentage of Calories From Monounsaturated Fat 78% 6%
Percentage of Calories From Polyunsaturated Fat 14% 4%
Evidence of Heart-Health Benefits Strong None
What about Coconut Water?
Now that’s a horse of a different color! Coconut water contains no saturated fat, is relatively low in calories and sodium, and is rich in potassium and antioxidants. Thus, coconut water is a heart-healthy beverage. While some claim that coconut water is the ideal fluid replacement post-exercise, this is simply not accurate. Sweat contains 30-35 times more sodium than potassium, thus sodium is the major electrolyte (salt) that needs to be replaced post-exercise. In order to replenish sodium losses, you might consider munching on a few pretzels with your coconut water after a long and sweaty workout. However, please note that most individuals are not exercising long enough or hard enough to be concerned about replacing sodium losses from sweat. If you are wondering how to choose between a sports drink and plain water, then please go to this link.
Neelakantan, N., et al. (2020). The effect of coconut oil consumption on cardiovascular risk factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials. Circulation. 141:803-814. doi: 10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.119.043052. Epub 2020 Jan 13.
Sacks, F.M. (2020). Coconut Oil and Heart Health: Fact or Fiction. Circulation.141:815–817. https://doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.119.044687
Quealy, K. Is sushi healthy? What about granola? Where Americans and nutritionists disagree. New York Times. July 5, 2016.