Coconut oil contains a variety of saturated fats. Some are known to increase cholesterol, while the medium-chain triglycerides provide health benefits. This mixed profile results in diverse recommendations about coconut oil. Since research so far hasn’t determined exactly how coconut oil affects heart disease, consult your health care provider to determine whether it would be a good addition to your diet.
Coconut oil consists almost entirely of saturated fats. Out of the total saturated fats, about 40 percent are the type that boost blood levels of artery-clogging cholesterol. The other 60 percent consists of medium-chain triglycerides, reports the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, behave differently than other saturated fats. They’re digested like carbohydrates, provide a quick source of energy and are less likely to be stored as fat. Coconut oil is often used in supplements because it’s such a rich source of MCTs.
Effect on Cholesterol
The most abundant medium-chain triglyceride in coconut oil, lauric acid, significantly raises total cholesterol. However, it increases HDL cholesterol, or good cholesterol, much more than LDL, or bad cholesterol, reported researchers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in May 2003.
The improved ratio of HDL to LDL may benefit some people, but research to date isn't conclusive enough to determine whether the mix of good and bad is healthy for everyone. Since it depends on your own cholesterol levels and health status, talk to your health care provider before consuming large amounts of coconut oil.
Role in Heart Health
Coconut oil may improve heart health through actions other than its effect on cholesterol, but most studies to date have used lab animals, so more research is needed to determine its effectiveness in people.
When lab rats were fed supplemental virgin coconut oil, researchers found that the oil improved the breakdown of fat cells, while limiting the production of new fat cells. They concluded that virgin coconut oil may lower the risk for coronary heart disease, reported the British Journal of Nutrition in May 2014.
In another study, lab rats that ate virgin coconut oil had more relaxed artery muscles and lower blood pressure than rats that received palm oil, another saturated fat, according to a report in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in June 2013.
Coconut oil contains plant-based polyphenols, which are natural antioxidants. When lab rats diagnosed with arthritis received virgin coconut oil, its antioxidant action helped reduce inflammation, reported researchers in the May 2014 issue of International Immunopharmacology.
Antioxidants in coconut oil also improved bone health in lab rats, according to a study in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine in August 2012.
Coconut oil isn’t known to cause side effects, but 1 tablespoon has 117 calories, which is enough to ruin your daily calorie goals if you consume too much.
Even though coconut oil has MCTs, it still has 14 grams of total fat and 12 grams of saturated fat. Limit your daily saturated fats to less than 7 percent of your total daily calories, suggests the American Heart Association.
Coconut allergies are rare, and a reaction to coconut oil is even less likely, but talk to your allergist before taking coconut oil if you have an existing tree nut allergy.