Coconut Oil: Cholesterol Villain or Health Food Darling?

In the past, coconut oil has carried both a bad rap and a reputation as a so-called

is coconut oil healthy

Is coconut oil healthy? Experts' opinions tend to split on this question.

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Coconut oil has certainly carried a bad rap in the past—an artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising, heart-attack-causing saturated fat worse than butter or lard. Then it started getting promoted as the latest health food super-oil—an ideal cooking oil that enhances the flavor of foods. But coconut oil is a saturated fat, and since the government warns against the consumption of saturated fats to prevent heart disease, leading many to wonder: Is coconut oil heathy?

What’s the truth? Are all saturated fats “bad” fats? Is coconut oil good for the heart, or not? And what about the alternately good and bad reputations that coconut oil has had in the past?

Is Coconut Oil Healthy?

The coconut oil of yesterday used by restaurants and movie theaters for deep frying and popcorn popping was in fact ultra dangerous and unhealthy. But this was a highly processed form of coconut oil that had been heated and then hydrogenated to increase shelf life. So this processing produces the dreaded trans fats as well as destroying many of the good essential fatty acids and antioxidants found in the oil.

The kind of coconut oil of today that has charmed the health food world is unprocessed, “virgin” coconut oil that has not been subjected to the high temperatures and thus maintains intact a storehouse of beneficial nutrients. 

For a plant oil, coconut oil is very unique; it makes up approximately 65 percent of the edible section of the fruit. And, coconut oil stays solid at room temperature because its composition is almost entirely saturated fat.

However, scientists and nutritionists are increasingly agreeing on a startling fact: just because the oil is a saturated fat does not mean it is bad for your health. Dr. Bruce Fife, ND, author of The Coconut Oil Miracle, believes the standard opinion on saturated fats is misguided as it does not take into account the positive health effects demonstrated by coconut oil.

“Due to their molecular structure, the medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil can increase the rate of fat-burning within the body,” Dr. Fife notes. ” his appears to have several effects on the cholesterol profile in the bloodstream, boosting HDL ‘good’ cholesterol while lowering LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol. The polyphenol content in the oil can also prevent the oxidation of cholesterol, an important step in the development of atherosclerosis (plaque in the arteries).”[1]

Dr. Fife is not the only person touting the benefits of the oil. Dr. Mary Enig, MS, PhD, author of Know Your Fats, espouses that consumption of coconut oil is a healthy choice for lowering LDL cholesterol levels and thereby decreasing the risk of heart disease. Dr. Enig reports that the effects of coconut oil on people with high cholesterol levels shows, “there is lowering of both total serum cholesterol and LDL cholesterol.”

Research Studies Support the Claims 

The truth is that multiple research studies have supported the claims that coconut oil does not induce heart disease, and in fact, can actually prevent it. Research published as far back as 1992 in The Philippine Journal of Internal Medicine notes, “The available population studies show that dietary coconut oil does not lead to high serum cholesterol or to high coronary heart disease mortality or morbidity.”[2]

A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition also verifies the health benefits. Researchers split study participants into two groups, feeding one group coconut oil and the other group soybeans. The research team found that coconut oil boosted the “good” HDL cholesterol levels, while the soybeans lowered them.[3]

Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition again confirmed that coconut both decreases LDL “bad” cholesterol while increases HDL “good” cholesterol levels. In this study, two populations of Polynesians were studied to investigate the effects of saturated fat in coconut oil on cholesterol levels. The research revealed that there was no evidence of coconut oil intake having a harmful effect on the populations’ cholesterol levels. Furthermore, the incidence of atherosclerosis was uncommon; that is, until they significantly lowered their consumption of coconut oil. After the decrease in coconut oil, the study participants experienced increases in total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol, and decreased levels of HDL cholesterol.[4]

Coconut Oil Fights Infection and Reduces Inflammation in the Body

Experts believe that inflammation is the primary culprit of the current rising trend of heart and brain diseases plaguing America. Dr. James O’Keefe, MD, director of preventive cardiology at the Mid America Heart Institute says, “Inflammation is the common denominator in nearly all of the diseases we deal with. Heart disease, diabetes, dementia—they’re all tied to inappropriate, low-grade, chronic inflammation.”[5]

Coconut oil contains two incredible fatty acids that can help reduce inflammation as well as fight infection in the body:

  1. Lauric acid—Approximately 50 percent of the fatty acids contained in coconut fat are lauric acid. Lauric acid is a medium chain fatty acid, which is formed into monolaurin in the human body. Monolaurin is used by the body to destroy various pathogens including viruses, bacteria and protozoa.
  2. Caprylic acid—Caprylic acid is an eight-carbon saturated fatty acid (also called octanoic acid). Caprylic acid is a potent anti-fungal. It is a useful compound for dealing with yeast, candida and other fungal infections because of its unique mechanism for killing off the organisms; its shape allows it to diffuse into the cell membrane before dissolving it. Research published in the Journal of Medicinal Food in 2007 looked at the effectiveness of both coconut oil and the prescription agent fluconazole against a range of candida species. They found that the coconut oil performed just as well as the drug.[6]

Coconut Oil: May Reduce Inflammation with Important Natural Healing Techniques

The reality is that your high cholesterol may be caused by chronic inflammation in your arteries. So something as simple as reducing the inflammation in your body can get your cholesterol levels back in check and help other health problems as well.

In addition to a diet that incorporates the healthy fatty acids found in coconut oil, you’ll need to follow an anti-inflammatory protocol applying key natural healing techniques.

[1] “The Coconut Oil Miracle”; Dr Bruce Fife; 2004.

[2] Philippine Journal of Internal Medicine. 1992 May-Jun;30(3):165-171.

[3] Br J Nutr. 1990 May;63(3):547-52.

[4] Am J of Clin Nutr, 1981: 34: 1552-61.

[5] “The Cholesterol-Inflammation Connection,” Health, 2009.

[6] J Med Food. 2007 Jun;10(2):384-7.

Originally published in 2012, this blog has been updated.

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Jami Cooley, RN, CNWC

Jami Cooley is a Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant as well as a Registered Nurse, but her interest in integrative medicine grew out of her experience in conventional medicine. Cooley … Read More

View all posts by Jami Cooley, RN, CNWC

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