Is coconut oil bad for your heart?

Coconut oil is bad for your heart? Have you heard this one?

The short answer : no, not really.  It may actually be good for your heart because it raises HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol – the kind that can REDUCE your risk of cardiac disease.

First of all – human beings are often by nature contrarian.  I mean, it is good to question things we hear.  But every time something comes out as GOOD for you – there seems to be an inherent backlash – “WAIT! maybe not. It will actually KILL you.” The truth is usually somewhere in the middle and much more complex than the clickbait.

Coconut with jars of coconut oil and cosmetic cream on wooden ba

So it goes with coconut oil. It is insanely popular, being high in MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides) which researchers have known for decades to be an efficient source of metabolic fuel, moreso than many other fats.  It is also high in compounds like lauric and caprylic acids which can be anti-viral, anti-bacterial, and generally beneficial to your health.

Recently a Harvard medical doctor made news telling people that Coconut oil is bad for you (I believe the words were “Pure Poison!”) – because it is high in saturated fat.  #1 that is old news and #2, again, the truth is much more complex.

But first, let’s look at science, and not just my, or some Harvard doctor’s opinion.

Whether or not saturated fat is the cause of heart conditions like CHF (congestive heart failure) is up for debate.  One thing that is not up for debate, as far as I know, is that bad cholesterol LDL increases your risk of a heart attack.  HDL or good cholesterol, decreases your risk of heart attack – by 4 times more than LDL increases it.  So, quite simply, raising HDL is a better strategy for heart health than lowering LDL.

One study, published in the journal Nutricion Hospital in 2015, found that patients with CAD (coronary artery disease) when treated with extra virgin coconut oil increased HDL-C and reduced other disease biomarkers. Another study on pre-menopausal women also found “Dietary coconut oil intake was positively associated with high density lipoprotein cholesterol especially among pre-menopausal women, suggesting that coconut oil intake is associated with beneficial lipid profiles. ”  There are other studies supporting coconut oil raising HDL, but you get the point.

Now, let’s look to a study that questions the health impact of coconut oil. Actually, this one isn’t even a study, it is a meta-analysis of 8 clinical trials and 13 observational studies. The researchers noted that ” The effect of coconut consumption on the ratio of total cholesterol to high-density lipoprotein cholesterol was often not examined.” (You think that might be important based on the importance of HDL versus LDL cholesterol?)

The researchers then concluded “Observational evidence suggests that consumption of coconut flesh or squeezed coconut in the context of traditional dietary patterns does not lead to adverse cardiovascular outcomes. However, due to large differences in dietary and lifestyle patterns, these findings cannot be applied to a typical Western diet. Overall, the weight of the evidence from intervention studies to date suggests that replacing coconut oil with cis unsaturated fats would alter blood lipid profiles in a manner consistent with a reduction in risk factors for cardiovascular disease.”

Except that raising HDL shows a reduction in risk factors for cardiovascular disease.  The above is what you would call a “highly interpretive” meta-analysis.  Sure, some unsaturated plant oils don’t affect cholesterol very much at all – but it is soooo important to look at HDL:total cholesterol ratios.  If someone tells you that your cholesterol has gone up and they don’t tell you what type of cholesterol, they really haven’t told you much at all.

No food is “GOOD” or “BAD” – these are highly subjective and limited terms.  The real analysis comes when you look at your overall diet.  To be sure, for most people, coconut oil – especially when used in place of other saturated fats, like butter or lard – is better for your heart and for your overall cholesterol levels. Still, the American Heart Association takes the opposite view, and recommends replacing it with unsaturated plant oils.

One thing to remember – the main thing to look at is your overall diet.  If you don’t eat a lot of saturated fats (the kind in meat and other animal products) you probably don’t need to worry about the small amount you’re getting from coconut oil.  If you have high cholesterol and are trying to manage it, you might want to choose unsaturated vegetable oils. But if you are a vegetarian or low-fat omnivore and cholesterol isn’t a major concern, the HDL boost from coconut oil is just as likely to benefit your health as any small increase in LDL cholesterol.  The healthy part really comes from a balanced diet, which coconut oil surely CAN be a part of.  All things in moderation.  Anyone who tells you it is “pure poison” is being dishonestly hyperbolic. I expected more from Harvard!




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