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Debunking Your Diet: Coconut Oil

All the back and forth on one of the supermarket’s latest “super” foods is enough to drive a person a little nutty. Several popular lifestyle bloggers hail coconut oil as a healthy alternative for home cooking, and it’s a key ingredient in certain recipes of the high-fat keto diet. An important medical association, however, suggests avoiding the saturated-fat laden option or drastically limiting our intake. We’ve peeled back the layers of the research on this popular food.


The American Heart Association (AHA) recently cited a survey reporting that 72 percent of Americans have been misguided to believe coconut oil is a “healthy food.” In comparison, 37 percent of nutritionists would describe it as such. The health claims for coconut oil may have begun in the early 2000s as a misinterpretation of a study showing that medium chain fatty acids, found in coconut oil, can help burn fat. Proponents also point to the fact that coconut oil helps raise good cholesterol levels and to studies that have found coconut oil can boost brain function and kill bacteria.

Last summer, the AHA released a dietary guidelines advisory that called out coconut oil. The organization noted that coconut oil is comprised of 82 percent saturated fat, which can increase levels of the bad cholesterol, LDL, a major cause of heart disease.

The AHA advises people to steer clear of coconut oil and its saturated fats and replace them with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat to lower incidence of heart disease. AHA’s better-for-you choices are olive oil, safflower oil, canola oil, corn oil, sesame oil, soybean oil and sunflower oil.

Andrea Leary, registered dietitian nutritionist and on-site registered dietitian nutritionist operations manager at Optum, agrees with the AHA recommendation and said she has steered many clients toward healthier alternatives when they ask about coconut oil’s benefits.

She pointed out that the government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10 percent of your daily calories come from saturated fats, such as coconut oil. “If you opt to moderately include coconut oil in your diet, choose virgin, or unrefined coconut oil, as many products containing coconut oil are highly processed,” she said.

If you’re still curious about the tropical oil, seek the opinion of your own doctor or health provider before determining if it’s right for you.

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Deciphering the latest truths and myths around food and other wellness topics can be confusing at best. Conflicting news articles and social media reports may leave us craving more info. While one article touts the benefits of a trending food, another may suggest avoiding it altogether. In our new series, Debunking Your Diet, we hope to help you make informed health decisions. Our goal is to arm readers with knowledge backed by scientifically proven studies and accredited health experts. As always, check with your provider regarding specifics related to your health and wellbeing.