For years now, health experts weren’t shy about touting the health benefits of coconut oil — from curbing hunger to increasing good cholesterol to promoting healthy skin. So when the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a statement earlier this week advising people against using coconut oil for heart health, the wellness world let out a collective gasp.
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Cracking the Code on Coconut Oil
Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, founder of Better Than Dieting, says, “Even though there have been various studies that support the benefits of coconut oil, they were done in the 70s and 80s, and we need to go back and analyze them again.”
Coconut oil first hit the health food scene after researchers discovered that its lauric acid profile — a type of saturated fat — was shown to help decrease LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol. Another so-called win for Team Coconut Oil came with a 2014 study from the prestigious Annals of Internal Medicine. It found that people who ate more saturated fat did not develop heart disease more often than those who ate less.
Some Paleo folks have taken this to heart and started adding grass-fed butter to their morning java (aka bulletproof coffee), but most health experts agree it’s smarter to cut back on saturated fat. Saturated fat is saturated fat, whether it’s from cheddar or coconut oil.
“While there is some evidence that there’s a place for saturated fats in your diet, it doesn’t necessarily mean that all foods with it are good for us,” Taub-Dix explains. “And it certainly doesn’t mean we can enjoy it in unlimited amounts.”
“Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat have been shown to lower cholesterol levels,” Marisa Moore, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Daily Burn in a 2014 interview. “There’s no evidence that saturated fat helps us in any way.”
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Saturated Fats…in Moderation?
The AHA recommends limiting your consumption of saturated fats to no more than five to six percent of your total daily calorie intake. That’s 13 grams of saturated fat.
To put this into perspective, one tablespoon of coconut oil has 12 grams of saturated fat. So if you’re using a tablespoon of oil to make your coffee in the morning, you’re already close to maxing out for the day. Add another tablespoon to your skillet for your veggie stir-fry, and you’re well over. But is it really necessary to obsess over saturated fat?
Instead of focusing on the saturated fats in food, Taub-Dix says to pay attention to the overall nutrition profile of the food. “Take whole Greek yogurt, for example. It’s full of saturated fat, but it’s also high in protein, calcium and essential probiotics,” Taub-Dix says.
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When we become too fat phobic, we begin to reach for sugary foods, which can lead to diabetes and heart disease. Cardiologist Stacey Rosen, M.D., vice president of the Katz Institute for Women’s Health at North Shore-LIJ Health System, says some people fall into the trap of loading up on carbs to help them feel more satisfied when they give up fat. “Increased intake of carbohydrates can have a negative effect on heart health by increasing ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol levels,” Rosen told Daily Burn. “It can also lead to weight gain and pre-diabetes.”
With that said, Taub-Dix notes, “Fat makes us feel satiated, and it adds flavor to our meals.” So if you like the way coconut oil tastes and how well it cooks, go for it. But as with all foods, it’s best to exercise moderation.
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Stick to the Good Guys: Unsaturated Fats
Taub-Dix also recommends taking your own family history of heart disease into account, too. “If you have a family history of heart disease, then you want to be extra cautious about limiting saturated fats from your diet.” Taub-Dix says coconut oil isn’t going to fill everyone’s dietary needs the same way, especially if you’re already predisposed to developing cardiovascular disease.
In place of coconut oil, Taub-Dix suggests reaching for foods rich in polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats: avocados, olive oil, walnuts and salmon. These foods are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which have continuously been proven to improve heart health and cholesterol levels.
Still, you should limit your consumption of these “good” fat foods since they’re calorie dense. Going overboard can pack on pounds and cause a plateau in your weight loss, Taub-Dix warns.
Bottom line: You don’t need to obsess over fat, sugar and carbs if you’re already following a balanced diet. Aiming for variety in your fat sources — whether it’s avocados, grass-fed butter or coconut oil — is the best way to practice moderation. “Maybe that means not enjoying a full tablespoon of coconut oil,” Taub-Dix says.
Contributing reporting by Barbara Brody.