Coconut oil: health food or health fad?

Firstly, I want to give a shout out to all the new readers of Prevention RD! In the past 2 days there’s been lots of new “faces” – so happy to hear from you! I am insanely behind this week on blog reading, but can’t wait to catch up with you this weekend! 😀 I didn’t know if Thursday would ever make it here, but I’m sooo excited to start my 3-day weekend!

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If you buzz around the blogosphere you’ve definitely read something about coconut oil and/or butter. Tracey brilliantly asked me to share some important information about these foods on my blog, and I am so glad she did! This is a HOT topic right now!

My $0.02 on Coconut Oil

[Note: Due to MAJOR differences in nutrition components, I will discuss coconut water in a later post.]

Various fat sources are like various sugar (and sugar substitute) sources…they can all be a part of a healthy, balanced intake. Unfortunately, we (the consumers) hear something is “good” for us, and we become OBSESSED with this illusive idea of “super healthy foods”. Take for example, antioxidants. Cooking Light recently discussed the passing phase of “Super Foods” and “antioxidants” – we knew nuts, seeds, salmon, and berries were good for us. But we need not shun everything else. Same goes for sugar and sugar substitutes. Stevia is showing great promise as a 100% safe and all-natural, calorie-free sweeteners, but why commit to just one sweetener? Honey and agave sure have their place, especially with their low glycemic index. Food monogamy = no bueno!

I feel the same about fats, including tropical fats such as coconut oil and butter. If you simply Google “Is coconut oil healthy?” get ready to find a lot of coconut proponent sites. This is NOT where credible information is found…it’s where suckers go and money-making happens. There are no large-scale, valid, or reliable studies to date supporting claims that coconut oils and butters produce weight loss, boost energy, increase immunity, cure hypothyroidism, increase satiety, or decrease cravings. However, there are credible studies supporting heart-healthy diets which include a healthy balance of fats – saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, and polyunsaturated fat. A mixed-fat diet best supports a healthy ratio of HDL-cholesterol (the good) to LDL-cholesterol (the bad). Note: TRANS fat is never considered a healthy fat to include in the diet. Coconut oil should be never be hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated (check the ingredient list for these key words!), as that indicates trans fat content.

What we do know is that coconut oil contains a lot of saturated fat – 91-92% saturated fat — 4x the amount in Crisco shortening and 12x more than canola oil. The fat in coconut oil is in the form of medium-chain triglyercerides (MCT), which means little to most. In brief, medium-chain triglycerides are quickly cleared from the blood and are a completely oxidized for energy. While that is wonderful for critically ill patients unable to properly digest fats, that means little for the general, healthy population. Furthermore, MCT’s do not contain any essential fatty acids (omega 3’s and 6’s which are not made by the body). And for what it’s worth, the Food and Drug Administration, as well as the American Medical Association, endorse limiting saturated fats, and therefore tropical oils (but that’s not to say don’t include them in moderation).

Tracey’s Q: Is coconut oil healthy?
My A: Not really…nope.

Tracey’s Q: Is it just a fad?
My A: I’d say so. Unless people are just now learning they enjoy coconut?? 😉

Bottom Line:

  • If you choose to consume coconut oil/butter, choose a product which has not been hydrogenated (check the label!)
  • Limit your saturated fat intake to 7% or less of your daily caloric intake (11.5 grams for a 1,500 calorie intake; 14 grams for a 1,800 calorie intake; 15.5 grams for a 2,000 calorie intake)
  • Include a variety of fats from the diet – canola oil, olive oil, and flaxseed oil all contain both essential fatty acids, and contain WAY less saturated fat than coconut oil
  • Complete annual blood work with your medical provider – this should include a lipid panel
  • Never “marry” a food – variety is the key to success!

There’s so much conflicting information on health and nutrition…and it can be hard to decipher. And while some of it is confusing, or contains a lot of gray area, that’s the way the health industry goes. We’re all learning together. Always. But the more we learn, the more we can utilize in optimizing our health.

Me, personally? It’s ironic that Tracey asked this question this week, because I picked up some coconut oil on Monday at the store. I have several recipes calling for coconut oil that I’d like to try. My draw to trying coconut oil is simply pleasure…love coconut! Unless it’s to-die-for-good, it will likely be a one-time purchase for my kitchen! Personally, I’m canola oil’s #1 fan! 😉

Question: Have you used coconut butter or oil? Did you like it? Were you/are you weary to use it based on its saturated fat content?

Heart smart,


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53 Comments

  1. April 29, 2010 / 5:37 am

    I’ve never used it, but I sure have heard a lot about it in blog land! Thank you for all the information. I think I’m like you – sticking with canola oil when I do use oil. I use it pretty infrequently!

  2. April 29, 2010 / 6:31 am

    Well, I hope that you will still respect me for disagreeing but honestly, for me, the only proof I need is in the pudding, so to speak. I don’t have much faith in studies since it has been my experience that studies are often funded by the “winner” of the debate. So for me, I have found increased satiety and even weight loss since I have increased my coconut oil intake. In fact, as an intuitive eater, I am very much into doing food experiments, which reminds me of a great post idea, and so this week, the kind of fat I consume at breakfast has been on my mind. I’ve used a couple different kinds and by far, the coconut oil ranked the highest in flavor and satiety. And, on the medical side of things, I have lowered my LDL cholesterol by 30 points (back into a healthy range) by consuming more coconut oil and fat in general.

    As you know from my blog, I am not a proponent of counting calories or diets but from my personal experience as of late, I think many women would see an increase in weight loss if they increased their fat intake in general.

  3. April 29, 2010 / 7:15 am

    I’ve wanted to try it out but my father HATES coconut, it makes my sister’s tongue itch and it’s always been kind of so-so for me. So, I’ve never really had an excuse to try to find it and if I didn’t like I wouldn’t have anything to do with it. 😛

    What do you think of rice bran oil? I’ve been trying to find a less-processed oil for baking (as much as I love my canola, it’s quite refined, and EVOO can’t be heated because heat basically destroys all its health benefits :().

    Have a great day!

  4. April 29, 2010 / 7:32 am

    I’ve never tried it but obviously hear about it EVERYWHERE! I’m more of an olive oil fan myself 😉

  5. April 29, 2010 / 7:33 am

    I was first introduced to coconut oil when I was dieting for a fitness show and my coach told me to ‘add a tablespoon of it to my oatmeal every morning instead of peanut butter.’ Really?? Haha like THAT was going to make a difference. 🙂

    I eat things because I like them, not because they are a fad or are good for me. 😉

  6. April 29, 2010 / 7:34 am

    Thanks for your answer, it’s so helpful. I have yet to try it because the high saturated fat content made me leery. I’m still not sure if I’ll try it. I do love coconuts and that flavor, but olive oil and canola oil are actually heart-healthy, not just OK in small quantities. Though coconut butter does sound pretty awesome, regular butter is too–but I don’t go overboard with that either.

    As always, awesome post!

  7. April 29, 2010 / 7:35 am

    I still haven’t tried it, but MAN is it everywhere in the blog world! Lol. I really liked that Cooking Light Superfoods article, because I’m so bad about hopping on the superfoods train! I need to remember that there’s nothing wrong with sticking with some old standbys!

  8. April 29, 2010 / 7:49 am

    I havent tried it yet but I’ve been seeing it everywhere so I feel like it’s about time.. I have trouble getting fats in my diet so I think it might be good for me 🙂 Thanks for the info though, loved reading it!

  9. April 29, 2010 / 7:49 am

    Thank you for this post – there is so much information out there and you can never quite be sure what’s accurate! I have tried coconut oil before, and I wasn’t blown away or anything. I’m actually not a huge coconut fan, but my husband is, so that’s why I bought it. The saturated fat content doesn’t totally scare me because my overall diet has very little saturated fat, so in general I would say that if you enjoy the taste a lot, feel free to enjoy it in moderation, just like you would any treat!

  10. April 29, 2010 / 7:59 am

    I haven’t ever used coconut oil, and I think I would be a little weary about the saturated fat, but like you say, everything is fine in moderation. I love coconut milk, and I know that’s high in fat. I’m assuming coconut oil has a strong coconutty flavor? You’ll have to let me know what it tastes like!

  11. April 29, 2010 / 8:01 am

    I’ve never tried coconut oil, but for something that is so expensive and can only be used in certain recipes it doesn’t really appeal to me! By cooking philosophy of quick, healthful, easy, and budget friendly doesn’t often include things such as this! But I would love to try it sometime, just to know 🙂

  12. April 29, 2010 / 8:05 am

    Thank you SO much for this post! I’ve been wondering if coconut oil and butter are really as great as everyone says they are. I’ve never tried them, but I think I might sometime just for sake of trying something new. I really appreciate your emphasis on variety. That is very important :-).

  13. April 29, 2010 / 8:09 am

    I love anything coconut flavored but after growing up eating and drinking the coconut straight up butter, oil, etc just doesn’t do it for me. I really don’t consume much coconut ever. I do like to use coconut oil on my skin though.

  14. April 29, 2010 / 8:31 am

    I haven’t tried it yet for the same reason as others have given- the saturated fat content freaks me out a little, and I get ALOT of fats in already from the various nut butters I can’t stay away from. Not to say I won’t ever use it, but I’m just not dying to get a hold of some…

  15. April 29, 2010 / 8:53 am

    I, too, am not a big coconut oil lover. I agree with you on all the points listed above. My favorite oil is grapeseed oil. What do you think about that one?

      • April 29, 2010 / 5:20 pm

        I know…isn’t it great?!

    • Nicole
      Author
      May 1, 2010 / 7:25 am

      It’s highest in the polyunsaturated fats, which is good! Poly’s lower LDL (the bad) but also lower HDL (the good). But it is a good oil 🙂

  16. April 29, 2010 / 8:55 am

    A lot of the hype regarding coconut oil is from the “Nourishing Traditions” followers around the blogosphere. I read it a few years ago and much of it seemed to be manipulated to make the point the author wanted. Anyhow, I just wanted to let you know that I am really enjoying your blog… 😀

  17. April 29, 2010 / 9:36 am

    Thank you so much for this post Nicole. I was wondering how healthy coconut oil really was with such a high saturated fat content. I have not tried coconut oil but did buy some coconut butter after seeing so many people rave about it on there blogs. Honestly I thought it was kind of strange and almost “dry” (does that make sense?). I was not a fan. I am sure I will use up the jar I bought, some how, since it was pretty expensive. Thanks again for this post I will be sticking to canola oil and olive oil.

  18. April 29, 2010 / 9:45 am

    I actually just picked up some coconut oil on Sunday because like you I have recipes that call for it. I really didn’t like coconut at all until about a year ago now I really like trying it with new things. Coconut flour is a favorite I like to use.

    Since coconut oil is absorbed so easily would it be a good fat for athletes, say if I added it to a fruit bar for a long run?

  19. April 29, 2010 / 9:54 am

    I never tried coconut oil or coconut butter, I usually drink the water…

    I have been into cococuts before it turned into a fad, blame it on my family lol. Dominicans love Coconuts in every form

  20. April 29, 2010 / 10:28 am

    I have seen it around, but it’s not something I’ve really wanted to try – not a huge coconut fan anyway – but as always, thanks for the info! 😀

  21. April 29, 2010 / 10:41 am

    I try to avoid seed oils and stick with coconut oil or grass fed butter for all my cooking/baking needs. I’ll use olive oil, but usually only for raw dishes or in salad dressing.

    Personally I’m not a fan of canola oil due to the process of manufacturing it which you can read about here: http://www.marksdailyapple.com/dear-mark-canola-oil/.

    I’d rather stick to the fats I believe nature intended us to eat, the ones that have been around for 1000’s of years before there was widespread obesity and heart disease.

  22. April 29, 2010 / 11:00 am

    Nicole, you’re one of my fave bloggers! Your topics are always so relevant and right on que. I couldn’t agree more with your ‘food monogoy=no bueno’ statement!

    I have never tried coconut oil. The high saturation thing just grosses me out.. more saturated than Crisco. Crazy. BUT I have tried coconut flour, which is tasty in baking.. so if you did recently discover that you love coconut give it a try. 😉

  23. April 29, 2010 / 11:12 am

    All I can say is thank you! These are the things that keep us dietitians in business, but at the same time makes people hate us! As always, hello moderation!

  24. April 29, 2010 / 11:21 am

    Thanks for deciphering some of the info on coconut oil which I haven’t used. Back in the day, I used cream of coconut when I was baking like a mad woman.

    For a mood eater such as myself, I marry foods all the time. 😉 Of course, I think that’s what got me in trouble with salmon…

  25. April 29, 2010 / 12:04 pm

    Never knew much about it till now. Guess I won’t worry about it and continue on my way ignoring it after your report 🙂

  26. April 29, 2010 / 12:25 pm

    Never knew coconut oil has so much fat, i do use in some of my dishes, …

  27. April 29, 2010 / 12:40 pm

    I’m not a big coconut fan so I’ll just stay away 🙂

  28. April 29, 2010 / 12:43 pm

    Thanks for posting this. 🙂

    I use coconut oil instead of body lotion mostly, but I do cook with it on occasion. I use it mainly because it tastes good.

  29. April 29, 2010 / 12:47 pm

    Thanks for this info! I never really get into the whole food fads thing. I’ve never tried coconut oil, and I probably never will!

  30. April 29, 2010 / 1:04 pm

    Thanks for the information!

    I am allergic to coconut so I stay away from it but it is always nice to learn something new! I am a canola and olive oil fan!

  31. April 29, 2010 / 2:53 pm

    I’ve kind of wanted to try coconut oil, but just haven’t ever wanted to enough to actually buy it. This is good info to know, thanks!! 🙂

  32. April 29, 2010 / 3:19 pm

    Thank you for posting this! I hate when foods become such a fad and people believe they are “magic”. I 100% agree with you that coconut oil can be a part of a healthy, balanced diet and that saturated fat is not the devil and is okay to have in moderation. I love how you show it is important about balance and not “marrying a food” (love that). Also, I bet people who feel more satiated by it probably enjoy coconut so the flavor leaves them feeling more satisfied. And could it be a placebo effect for people thinking it alters the way they eat and their bodies? I think that’s very likely. The best thing for our bodies to enjoy a balanced diet incorporating foods with nutritious benefits from across the spectrum. And some chocolate as well. 😉

  33. April 29, 2010 / 3:32 pm

    I agree with you. I am not married to unrefined coconut oil but I have become a big fan recently. I have added it to my ingredient list, it has not replaced the other stuff though.

  34. April 29, 2010 / 3:42 pm

    This is almost erie timing, as I was planning on trying coconut oil since I’d heard great things about it!

    I will definitely admit to trying new things I see on blogs, if everyone likes them. Yep, joiner right here. LOL. That is very interesting, though – and I completely agree about foods. I told my friend my sister is struggling to lose over 80 pounds, and she said – “Oh! Have her add coconut oil to seriously ALL of her cooking!” Really? If it were only that easy, right? I HAVE heard it’s a great moisturizer, though. 😉

  35. April 29, 2010 / 4:11 pm

    Thanks so much for this great info. I’m sticking with canola!

  36. April 29, 2010 / 4:55 pm

    Great post I have been reading about coconut butter and oil everywhere lately. I love coconut so I was thinking about trying it out and maybe I still will, when you post a recipe that uses it 😛

  37. April 29, 2010 / 6:18 pm

    I’m on the same page as Christie from Honoring Health. I’ve noticed that adding coconut oil to my diet makes me much fuller and seemingly more energized (whether that’s a placebo effect or not, I like it! :P). Not to mention that I don’t fear fats…including saturated fats. I’ve been doing some research on it so that I can have a better understanding, but based on some recent studies it seems as though saturated fat isn’t the cause of heart disease and obesity as previously thought. But like I said – I’m interested in learning more about it, for sure. So in that sense, thanks for the insightful post! 🙂

  38. April 29, 2010 / 7:08 pm

    I’ve never used coconut oil but for some reason I thought it had a lot of polyunsaturated fat – but not so much. It’s definitely high in saturated fat!

  39. April 29, 2010 / 9:48 pm

    WOW! I’m so glad you wrote this. Very good info! <—-(and yes, I know a spammer leaves this kind of comments, but I'm serious.) 😛

  40. April 30, 2010 / 3:03 pm

    I have been enjoying some coconut oil lately. Actually, I had been introduced to it years ago by a friend way before it became so popular. But once I ran out of the oil she had given me, I sort of forgot about it.

    I really like your point about everything in moderation. It’s so true, when people hear something is good, they go crazy. I have lived long enough to know that what’s thought to be “super healthy” today may be “less than desirable” tomorrow. Plus, variety makes life as well as food interesting! 🙂

  41. April 30, 2010 / 3:16 pm

    Great post! As many comments have already pointed out..the key is moderation. You are right in the fact that when we hear buzz about this product, most tend to overdo. I have yet to try coconut oil but would be up for giving it a while. I am curious to see more reasearch in regards to this.

  42. July 21, 2010 / 9:27 am

    agree to you! i have also put a topic about coconut oil in my blog. guess what, i have been very bored by all news and comments about the benefit of coconut oil (especially the extra virgin one). all i may say is that to avoid it until it is 100% proven. anyway, even it is healthier than olive oil, it is stil 100% oil contains 120 calories per tbspn! it’s high in calories, man! oh yeah, you may see the discussion opened at my blog at yorknell.wordpress. com!

  43. March 15, 2014 / 6:43 pm

    Coconut is definitely a health food. Coconut oil helps raise HDL levels which is good. It also have antiviral properties. Coconut oil and water are good sources of quick energy because the body burns them quickly.

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