If you’re a health fanatic, you will have heard about the coconut commotion. In its recently published Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory, the American Heart Association (AHA) implicated that coconut oil is bad for your heart. This news rattled a few folks in holistic nutrition, who have long preached the benefits of coconut oil.
We know the list of coconut oil claims is long ranging, from skin and hair to immunity and digestive health. For the purpose of this article, we’re going to hone in on the link between coconut oil and heart disease. After all, is this trendy oil really that bad for your heart?
What did the AHA say about coconut oil?
Just in case you snoozed out on social media in the past few weeks, the highlights of the AHA advisory are as follows:
- Heart disease is a major killer worldwide causing 17.3 million deaths annually.
- Randomized controlled trials (think: the gold standard of scientific studies) show again and again that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat reduces heart disease by 30%. (Fun fact: Taking a statin, the medication prescribed to people with high cholesterol, also reduces your risk for heart disease by 30%.)
- AHA strongly recommends that we replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat to lower our risk for heart disease. They went on to endorse the Mediterranean diet for good health. (Learn more about the Mediterranean diet in Why the Mediterranean Diet is the Best Diet.)
So, where is coconut oil in all this? Well, coconut oil is very high in saturated fat. Eighty-two percent of this oil is saturated fat. That’s higher than butter, which is 63% saturated fat. It’s higher than tallow (aka fat extracted from beef), which is 50% saturated fat. Because of this high saturated fat content, the AHA advises against consuming a lot of coconut oil.
How does coconut oil increase heart disease risk?
Glad you asked! When you eat saturated fat, it increases your LDL (aka “bad”) cholesterol. It’s perfectly normal to have LDL cholesterol. Cholesterol is essential for good health (learn more in Blood Cholesterol 101). But, when there is too much LDL cholesterol floating around in the blood, the cholesterol can form plaques on blood vessel and artery walls. When this happens, your heart has to work that much harder to pump blood to the rest of your body. When this condition is severe enough, it may lead to heart attack or stroke.
We know it sounds scary, but don’t fret. Heart disease doesn’t happen right after you swallow a spoonful of coconut oil. It takes years, even decades, of eating an unhealthy diet high in saturated fat to increase your risk for heart disease. It’s never too late to decrease your risk for heart disease by choosing a healthier diet. If this is you, we recommend you:
- Swap out coconut oil for olive, canola or other vegetable oil. These plant-based cooking oils are full of healthy unsaturated fats. They’re a better choice for you than coconut or palm oil, both of which contain high amounts of saturated fat. (Learn more in What Oils Should You Cook With?)
- Swap red meat for lean animal and plant protein. Beef, pork and lamb contain more saturated fat than chicken and poultry. (Find chicken recipes here).
- Get your cardio on. Exercises that get your heart working harder have been shown to bring your cholesterol profile back in balance. Pick an activity you like, such as brisk walking, jogging, swimming or dancing.
What should I do with my leftover tub of coconut oil?
Truth is, the popular media has done a good job at making coconut oil a trendy ingredient. When polled, 72% of the American public rated coconut oil as a “healthy” food compared to just 37% of nutritionists. If you’ve got a tub of coconut oil lurking in your house, it’s still got its uses. Coconut oil is great at keeping your hair shiny, your skin supple and your lips moisturized. Coconut oil may not do your heart any favors, but you don’t need to ditch it 100%. You can still enjoy coconut oil occasionally and in small amounts.