According to the latest guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA), coconut oil might not be as healthy to eat as we thought.

Coconut oil might not be as good you thought. Image credits: PaulReis123 / Wikipedia.

Coconut oil has risen to fame in recent years, commonly sold as a healthier alternative to saturated fats. The AHA, however, says that there’s not enough scientific evidence to suggest that — we might have given coconut oil too much credit.

Choosing your fats

The “fats” name is rather unfortunate — because for a long time, it was thought that they are responsible for making you fat. But now we know that that’s not really the case, with sugar and not fats being the main culprit behind the obesity pandemic. Still, this isn’t saying that fats are necessarily good for you; fats come in numerous shapes and sizes, with the main categories being:

  • monounsaturated fats; these are the good guys, have then in moderate amounts and they’ll keep your cholesterol levels healthy. Notable foods: avocado, olive oil, hazelnuts, peanuts, cashew, etc.
  • polyunsaturated fats; they’re still OK, especially as long as you have them in low amounts. Notable foods: corn oil, oily fish, sunflower seeds, soya oil, etc.
  • saturated fats; we’re moving into unhealthy territory. These fats are not good for your cholesterol levels. Notable foods: fatty meats, butter, lard, processed meats, palm oil, hard cheeses and coconut oil.
  • trans fats; these should be avoided whenever possible. Notable foods: fried fast food, many takeaways, hard margarine.

This can be a bit confusing, but think about it this way: unsaturated fats, the “good guys” are almost always liquid at room temperature. Saturated and trans fats, the “baddies” are usually solid. Interestingly, the melting point of coconut oil is 76 degrees F (24 C), so depending on your room temperature, it could be liquid (if you’re over 24 C) or solid (under 24 C). Either way, it’s riddled with saturated fats.

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Olive oil is an excellent source of healthy fats. Image via Pixabay.

Coconut oil

What I presented above is a simplified way of looking at things. In real life, things contain many kinds of fats, but we simplify that. For instance, when we say that olive oil is a healthy food because it has unsaturated fats — it also has saturated fats, though in a much smaller proportion. So where does coconut oil stand?

According to the AHA, 82% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, a whopping proportion. Compared to it, even butter (63%), beef fat (50%), and pork lard (39%) fare better. Judging by this alone, coconut oil is actually worse than all these. Of course, there are other aspects to consider, and no one is saying lard is healthier than coconut oil, it’s just that the latter has been given a lot of spotlight for qualities it just doesn’t have. Or rather, for qualities no one has thoroughly proven that it has.

“We want to set the record straight on why well-conducted scientific research overwhelmingly supports limiting saturated fat in the diet to prevent diseases of the heart and blood vessels,” said Dr Frank Sacks, lead author of the AHA advice.

As it’s so often the case, so-called nutritionists and faux doctors have influenced public opinion much more than actual science, and the hype around coconut oil has grown far beyond what the substance actually has to offer. The full article goes on:

“Taking into consideration the totality of the scientific evidence, satisfying rigorous criteria for causality, we conclude strongly that lowering intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of CVD [cardiovascular disease]. This recommended shift from saturated to unsaturated fats should occur simultaneously in an overall healthful dietary pattern such as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or the Mediterranean diet as emphasized by the 2013 American Heart Association/American College of Cardiology lifestyle guidelines and the 2015 to 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”

The bottom line is, we should try to reduce the saturated fats from our diet, but there’s no need to lead an all-out war on fats. Researchers stress that fats are an essential part of a healthy, balanced diet. They’re a source of essential fatty acids and help the body absorb vitamins, such as A, D, and E.

Victoria Taylor from the British Heart Foundation, told the BBC we should have a whole approach to our diets. It’s not all about fats, it’s more about having a balanced nutrition and reducing risk factors, not falling for the latest fad in nutrition or the latest wonder food nutritionists pump out.

“To eat well for your heart health it is not just about reducing fat but reducing specific types of fat and taking care over what these are replaced with – unsaturated fats and wholegrains, rather than sugars and refined carbohydrates. Any change should be viewed in the context of a whole diet approach. The traditional Mediterranean diet has benefits for a range of risk factors for heart disease, not just cholesterol levels. We recommend replacing the saturated fats in the diet with unsaturated fats – using oils instead of butter and choosing foods like avocado, oily fish, nuts and seeds instead of foods high in saturated fats like cakes, biscuits, chocolate and fatty meat.”