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In recent years, coconut oil has been touted as a health food with remarkable benefits, from reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease to reducing inflammation, and from aiding weight loss to lowering the risk of heart disease. Many health conscious people even began using it as an alternative to butter and vegetable oil for cooking. But is cooking with coconut oil actually healthy?
In a recent advisory on the role of dietary fats in cardiovascular disease risk, the American Heart Association (AHA) singled out coconut oil—not for how it improves your health, but for the risks it poses.
It turns out that coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat, and the AHA suggests that it can raise your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol as much as beef fat, butter, and palm oil do. High LDL levels raise your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) by increasing the amount of plaque in the walls of your arteries—a condition known as atherosclerosis. They conclude that “because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”
Cooking with Coconut Oil: Behind the Misperception
One of the reasons why coconut oil may be perceived as healthy is that it is used in many cosmetic products. They include lip balm, skin moisturizers, hair conditioners, and a variety of uses. And there’s no denying the appealing scent of coconut.
But don’t be fooled. Coconut oil is an unnecessary source of saturated fat, especially given the variety of healthier cooking oils at your disposal. In fact, the AHA advisory suggests that consumers replace unhealthy saturated fats with healthier, unsaturated fats. Doing so can have the benefits of cholesterol-lowering statin medications, according to the AHA advisory.
“This important paper reaffirms the scientific evidence that saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol, a leading cause of atherosclerosis,” says Rachel Johnson, PhD, RD, a professor of nutrition at the University of Vermont. “Furthermore, replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduces the incidence of cardiovascular disease.”
Healthy Fat Alternatives
The challenge of swapping unhealthy fats for healthier options is sometimes made more difficult because eating and cooking habits can be difficult to break. If you’re used to cooking with butter, for example, you may feel uncomfortable switching to olive oil.
However, the American Heart Association says that numerous studies in recent decades are proof that you should make that healthy change today. “We want to set the record straight on why well-conducted scientific research overwhelmingly supports limiting saturated fat in the diet to prevent diseases of the heart and blood vessels,” says Frank Sacks, MD, lead author of the advisory and professor of Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
GENERAL DIET GUIDELINES
Besides discontinuing the practice of cooking with coconut oil, the American Heart Association recommends the following as general heart-healthy diet guidelines:
- Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, poultry, fish and nuts.
- Limit red meat (twice a week, maximum) and sugary foods and beverages.
- Use naturally occurring non-hydrogenated vegetable oils, such as olive oil and sesame oil, as often as you can.
- Cut out or limit fast food and processed foods, especially those that contain trans fats.
Please note that these recommendations are for adults. Children and teens need more fat than adults for healthy growth and development; natural sources of fat such as butter and full fat milk are recommended.
When it comes to fats in cooking ingredients, coconut oil and other tropical oils shouldn’t have a place in your kitchen. Instead of cooking with coconut oil, use vegetable oils such as canola oil, peanut oil, and olive oil. Vegetable oils contain monounsaturated fats, which are associated with improved blood cholesterol levels and lower cardiovascular disease risks.
The AHA recommends that, as part of a heart-healthy diet, we take a close look at the fats we eat. Recommendations include:
- Increase unsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are found in:
- Oily fish such as salmon, and herring
- Avocados, olives, and nuts such as walnuts.
- Liquid vegetable oils such as olive, sesame, peanut, soybean, safflower, canola, corn, and sunflower. Other health experts urge caution with soy, canola, and corn oil.
- Animal products such as beef, lamb, pork, poultry with skin, butter, cream, cheese, and other dairy products made from whole milk.
- Tropical oils, including coconut, coconut oil, palm oil, and palm kernel oil and cocoa butter.
Back to Coconuts
The American Heart Association recommendation is to limit the use of coconut oil for cooking, as there are oils proven to have a much better effect on cholesterol profile.
However, if you love the exotic taste of coconut, why not enjoy raw coconut meat—which is rich in fiber, vitamin C, manganese, and potassium—or coconut water as part of a well-balanced heart-healthy diet.