According to Gwyneth Paltrow's lifestyle website Goop, coconut oil is akin to a miracle drug. The site says the benefits of coconut oil—organic and virgin, of course—are "practically endless": "Switch it out in place of conventional vegetable oil or butter for extra-healthy stir-fries, sauces, and even in baking recipes—it's a delicious pantry-detox must." Many other self-styled health gurus tout the stuff as a surefire preventative for everything from Alzheimer's to obesity. Coconut oil is having its 15 minutes of fame, for sure.
But this week, the American Heart Association issued an advisory that says coconut oil isn't particularly good for you to eat. Never was. Still isn't. According to the statement, which cites a variety of scientific evidence, you shouldn't be eating coconut oil at all, really.
The problem with coconut oil, according to the AHA, is that 82 percent of the fat in it is saturated. That's more saturated fat than butter, beef fat, or even pork lard. As a saturated fat, coconut oil increases your LDL cholesterol—you know, the "lousy" cholesterol, not the good stuff—and, therefore, may contribute to cardiovascular disease. The AHA wants you to know that cardiovascular disease is "the leading global cause of death, accounting for 17.3 million deaths per year."
Alice H. Lichtenstein, senior scientist and director of Tufts University's Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, told MUNCHIES: "The majority of the evidence, from both observational and intervention studies, supports the recommendation to replace saturated fat, that fat found in animal products, meat, and dairy, with unsaturated fat, found in liquid plant oils such as soybean and canola oils. Coconut oil is a plant oil, but it falls into a special class, termed 'tropical oils.' Tropical oils are high in saturated fat. Hence, the best advice we can give is to replace coconut oil with other plant oils."
The misconception that coconut oil is healthy may have come from past weight loss studies that stated medium chain triglycerides can increase metabolism rates. But coconut oil only contains a small amount of MCTs—around 13 to 15 percent—and other studies show that amount may not have any impact on weight loss. As Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a research associate with Columbia University's New York Obesity Research Center who studied MCTs, told MUNCHIES: "When consumed in sufficient amounts, medium chain fatty acids can raise energy expenditure and improve weight control. However, this is not the same as coconut oil. To get the same benefits from coconut oil, one would theoretically need to consume 7.5 times the amount of medium chain fatty acids. However, that would come with that much more fat and other saturated fats that are not desirable in the diet."
Bottom line: You should limit the amount of saturated fat you eat. In the words of Marie-Pierre St-Onge, "At this time, we need more research on the impact of modest amounts of coconut oil to determine whether this can be safely incorporated into a heart-healthy diet. Until then, why not choose the proven options that have a long history of cholesterol-lowering benefits?"
Back to olive oil, people. But feel free to smear coconut oil all over your skin and hair, if you are so inclined. "You can put it on your body, but don't put it in your body," Sacks said. We've heard worse ideas.