DEAR DOCTOR K:
I’ve started noticing more coconut oil at the grocery store, and I’ve heard it’s better for you than a lot of other oils. Is that true? It has a lot of saturated fat.
To answer your question, I consulted with my colleague, Dr. Walter Willett, chair of the Harvard School of Public Health’s Department of Nutrition. Here’s what he had to say.
You’re right: Coconut oil is about 90 percent saturated fat. That’s a much higher percentage than butter (about 64 percent saturated fat), beef fat (40 percent) or even lard (also 40 percent). Too much saturated fat in the diet is unhealthy because it raises “bad” LDL cholesterol levels, which increase the risk of heart disease. So you’d think that coconut oil would be bad news for our hearts.
But what’s interesting about coconut oil is that it also gives “good” HDL cholesterol a boost. Fat in the diet, whether it’s saturated or unsaturated, tends to nudge HDL levels up, but coconut oil seems to be especially potent at doing so.
Plant-based oils are more than just fats, of course. Coconut oil, like other plant oils, also contains many antioxidants and other substances that may benefit your health. So the overall effect of coconut oil can’t be predicted just by the changes in good and bad cholesterol.
Dr. Willett tells me there’s no problem using coconut oil occasionally. Coconut oil is solid at room temperature, so it may be a good substitute for butter or vegetable shortening to make baked goods that require a solid fat. And it may be essential for preparing certain Thai dishes.
But for now, I’d use coconut oil sparingly. Most of the research so far has consisted of short-term studies to examine its effect on cholesterol levels. We don’t really know how coconut oil affects heart disease.
Coconut oil’s special HDL-boosting effect may make it “less bad” than its high saturated fat content would suggest. But it’s still probably not the best oil to reduce the risk of heart disease. Furthermore, while we know that people with naturally high levels of HDL are less likely to have heart disease, we don’t know that raising normal levels with coconut oil or pills produces heart benefits.
So what I recommend for you, and for myself, is to cook with other vegetable oils, such as olive oil or soybean oil. These oils are mainly unsaturated fat, and they both lower LDL and increase HDL.
I use coconut oil sparingly. But I love Thai food, and when I see a Thai dish that includes coconut oil on the menu, I don’t automatically reject it. And please don’t ask me to give up the occasional pina colada. Life is too short for that.