But if you’re freaking out over that, and all the subsequent click-baity headlines—“Coconut Oil Isn’t Healthy. It’s Never Been Healthy” or “So Coconut Oil Is Actually Really, Really Bad For You”—take a deep breath and refrain from tossing your jar of organic cold-pressed coconut oil in the trash just yet.
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The truth is, coconut oil may not be the complete miracle worker that some healthy living bloggers have claimed it to be, but it sure isn’t going to kill you if you use it intelligently—and it may actually have some perks.
In fact, in the past few days, a number of doctors and nutrition experts have come to the defense of coconut oil, some proclaiming that the AHA has greatly oversimplified the potential risks and cherry picked data to support their current recommendations (among which are to consume "healthier" oils like soybean oil, corn oil, and canola oil).
Here, let us put this coconut oil craze into context:
Even if coconut oil boosts cholesterol, it won’t (necessarily) harm your heart
The AHA based their recommendation to avoid coconut oil largely on the fact that its high saturated fat content can increase levels of LDL cholesterol, commonly referred to as the “bad” cholesterol that ups your risk of heart disease. Of course, it’s more complicated than that.
In a rebuttal to the AHA’s report, Diana Rodgers, RD, registered dietitian, organic farmer, and author of the blog Sustainable Dish, explains that the total number of LDL particles is far less important than the shape and size of the LDL particles: “an increase in saturated fat intake does raise LDL, but only the large, fluffy [LDL particles], not the harmful dense LDL [particles]” that promote inflammation. She goes on to say that saturated fat from sources like butter and coconut oil also increase HDL cholesterol, which is protective to our hearts and reduces risk of heart disease.
Rodgers also points out that “there have been 17 meta-analyses and systematic reviews conducted that have not found a clear link between saturated fat intake and heart disease.” The AHA’s analysis, on the other hand, used four studies—some from the 60s—to draw their conclusions.
Looking at overall diet is more important than a single food
In an interview with Mind Body Green, functional medicine doctor Rachel Berzin, MD, explains that the healthiness or unhealthiness of coconut oil largely depends on what else you’re eating:
“High saturated-fat consumption in a diet that is otherwise void of adequate fiber and leafy greens, and too high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, increases small, dense LDL cholesterol. High fat consumption from monounsaturated fats (olive oil) and even saturated fat (organic coconut oil) in a diet mainly free from sugar and flours, and high in vegetables and fiber can actually improve cholesterol composition."
Related: What Happened When I Tried To Make My Own Coconut Oil (And Why I'll Never Do It Again)
Meaning, if you add coconut oil to an already crappy diet, yes, you can be doing some serious harm to your health. But if you occasionally incorporate coconut oil into a diet loaded with things like fruits, veggies, nuts, and high quality plant and animal proteins, you can probably relax.
Coconut oil does have some perks
These health benefits were not mentioned in the AHA’s paper. Coconut oil has been shown in some studies to promote a reduction in abdominal obesity, and research also links medium chain triglycerides—present in coconut oil—to weight loss. One study even found that coconut oil promoted healthy overall cholesterol levels, reducing total cholesterol and LDL, and raising HDL. Coconut oil also has antimicrobial properties, thanks to lauric acid, which makes it great for topical applications as well. (Check out these 10 nourishing coconut oil beauty treatments.)
This, of course, isn't permission to binge on the stuff, but it does point out some flaws in the AHA's argument that coconut oil has essentially no redeeming qualities.
Related: The Top 10 Inflammation Fighting Foods
While coconut oil shouldn’t be consumed in large quantities, it can still be part of a healthy diet if your overall eating habits are solid. Hormone expert Sarah Gottfried, MD, told Mind Body Green that the right amount will vary depending on the person, but that she tolerates 1-2 tablespoons daily. You may need to experiment a bit to learn what works best for you.