Is Coconut Oil Good for You? Dietitians Weigh In
In case you hadn’t noticed, coconut oil has surged in popularity in recent years — thanks in part to diets like keto and paleo, and its many touted health benefits. Nowadays, people are cooking and baking with it, brushing their teeth with it, stirring it into coffee, and even adding it to their skincare and haircare routines.
But coconut oil is nothing if not controversial: whereas some claim it can help promote weight loss, other experts insist that it can sabotage your heart health. A 2016 survey found that while 72% of Americans view coconut as “healthy,” only 37% of nutrition experts agree.
So, is coconut oil good for you? Here’s what dietitians say.
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is made by pressing fresh or dried coconut meat.
What sets it apart from many other common cooking oils is that it contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) — a type of fat that your body metabolizes differently.
Potential benefits of coconut oil
According to Stephanie Wells, RD and owner of Thyme to Go Vegan Nutrition Services, the health halo around coconut oil stems from those aforementioned MCTs. Your body can quickly and easily absorb and use them for energy, meaning they aren’t likely to be stored as fat.
A 2014 study found that MCTs may actually increase hunger-regulating hormones, which make you feel full. This satiating power might help you avoid overeating — which could translate to weight loss over time. Also, a 2015 review found that consuming MCTs can increase your body’s calorie burning.
All that said, there’s currently no scientific evidence confirming a direct link between coconut oil and weight loss.
It’s also worth noting that coconut oil is rich in antioxidants, which can help to prevent certain chronic diseases. Because of its neuroprotective and anti-inflammatory antioxidant properties, scientists believe it may help to ward off Alzheimer’s disease.
Is coconut oil really good for you?
The main concern with coconut oil is its saturated fat content. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains a whopping 12 grams of saturated fat or 59% of your daily value.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting your saturated fat intake to less than 5% to 6% of your total daily calories — for a 2,000-calorie diet, that translates to a max of 13 grams. And there’s a good reason for this recommendation: Research has shown that saturated fat can raise levels of LDL cholesterol, which can increase your risk of heart disease — which is why the AHA advises against using coconut oil.
If you have high cholesterol or are otherwise at high risk for heart disease, Stephanie Nelson, RD at MyFitnessPal, highly recommends consulting your doctor before using coconut oil.
Read next: 3 Things Everyone Should Know About Fat
The bottom line
“The answer to whether coconut is healthy is more complex than yes or no,” says Wendy Lord, RD and nutritional consultant at Sensible Digs. “It’s not a superfood, as many influencers want us to believe, but it’s not altogether unhealthy.”
Coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol levels, although not as high as butter does. However, Wells notes that there are many other more heart-healthy fats to choose from — including olive oil, flaxseed oil, and avocado oil, which can actually limit how much LDL cholesterol your body absorbs.
As with many foods, Lord says the key is moderation. In other words, coconut may be healthy in very small amounts. But once you exceed one tablespoon, the risks may outweigh the benefits. So, if you already eat a lot of foods that are high in saturated fat — like butter, cheese, and processed meats — Wells says you’re better off ditching the coconut oil and opting for other plant-based oils instead.