Latest research: Coconut oil isn’t as healthy as you think

The American Heart Association released a groundbreaking report earlier this month that may be shocking for coconut oil enthusiasts.

For years, health and nutrition bloggers touted the benefits of coconut oil as a nutritious cure-all for everything from weight loss to insomnia.

But the American Heart Association and dietitians want you to remember there is no one food that is a “cure-all.”

Marie-Pierre St-Onge’s research lies at the heart of the issue. Her work is often incorrectly cited by bloggers and media outlets to back their claims about the health benefits of coconut oil.

St-Onge’s original research, published in 2003, found that medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) such as those found in coconut oil led to increased weight loss in study participants when compared to long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). However, the study used a designer oil comprised of 100 percent MCTs as opposed to a more common variety of coconut oil, which typically only contains 13-15 percent MCTs. Other studies discuss coconut oil’s role in increasing good HDL cholesterol. Such was the case in a meta-analysis of several studies in 2003 from the National Institute of Health (NIH). While this analysis found that coconut oil increased levels of HDL cholesterol, levels of LDL cholesterol also were raised, effectively cancelling out any potential benefits.

Certified physicians and nutritionists typically advise a well-balanced diet with a sizable portion of healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Such fats are most often found in fish, nuts and healthy oils. While coconut oil contains trace amounts of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, most its caloric impact comes from saturated fat.

“Many people think coconut oil is the next miracle cure because there are a lot of websites devoted to its benefits,” said Rachel Wagner, MS, RD, LD, a dietitian at St. Elizabeth’s Weight Management Center. “Just typing ‘coconut oil’ in to Google results in over 60 million pages; the top results all were about its supposed health benefits.”

Coconut oil may still be used in moderation; although, you may want to consider switching to one of these healthier alternatives:


1. Olive Oil

Olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats which can improve cholesterol levels and reduce the risk for heart disease. Research indicates that olive oil  can help significantly reduce risks of cardiovascular disease and breast cancer, as well as improved insulin levels and blood sugar control for those at risk of type 2 diabetes. While olive oil is a healthier alternative to coconut oil, its high concentration of fats also make it high in calories, so consume in moderation.


2. Canola Oil

Canola oil is high in both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats such as Omega-3. Canola oil contains far less saturated fat than other oils. It also works to reduce the absorption of cholesterol into the body due to the presence of high levels of phytoserols. While much misinformation is tossed around regarding the safety of canola oil, these claims are largely unfounded, according to the Mayo Clinic. Canola oil is ideal for baking and cooking as it is relatively flavorless and has a high smoke point. Peanut, soybean and corn oils behave similarly and offer relatively similar health benefits.

“The best way to navigate the plethora of nutritional information is to speak with a registered dietitian,” said Wagner.  “A good rule of thumb is: ‘If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.’”

Read more about the latest research here.