November 10, 2011 in Features

Dr. K: Coconut oil no substitute for healthier vegetable oils

Anthony L. Komaroff, M.D. Universal Uclick
 
Contact Dr. K

Dr. Komaroff is a physician and professor at Harvard Medical School. Go to his website to send questions and get additional information: www.AskDoctorK.com.

DEAR DOCTOR K: Until recently, I had never noticed coconut oil in the grocery store. Now it seems I can’t avoid it. Is it true that it’s better for you than other cooking oils?

DEAR READER: Most plant oils are full of “good” fats – monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats – and contain relatively few “bad” fats, particularly saturated fats. Plant oils such as olive oil, canola oil, peanut oil and safflower oil are all definitely better for you than other sources of fat, such as butter, hard margarine and lard.

What about coconut oil? It’s a plant oil, too. On paper, coconut oil doesn’t seem like it should be good for you. That’s because it’s about 90 percent saturated fat. That’s more saturated fat than is in butter (about 64 percent), beef fat (40 percent) or even lard (also 40 percent), which are all bad for the heart when they are used or eaten frequently.

Too much saturated fat in the diet is unhealthy because it raises “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. This in turn increases the risk of heart disease. High levels of LDL cholesterol increase the chances you will develop atherosclerosis in your heart arteries. So it would seem that coconut oil would be bad news for our hearts.

So why is coconut oil catching on these days, even among the health conscious? One interesting thing about coconut oil is that it also gives “good” HDL cholesterol a boost. Higher levels of HDL cholesterol are called “good” because they’re good for the heart. They lower your risk of developing atherosclerosis. Fat in the diet, whether it’s saturated or unsaturated, tends to nudge HDL levels upward. Coconut oil seems to be especially good at doing this.

Despite the fact that it has a greater tendency to raise “good” HDL cholesterol, coconut oil also raises “bad” LDL cholesterol. Although it seems like it has positive effects on cholesterol, we don’t really know how coconut oil affects heart disease. So I’d say it’s probably wise to use coconut oil sparingly for now. It’s unlikely that coconut oil is as healthful as vegetable oils such as olive oil and soybean oil.

For many years you’ve probably heard that fat in the diet was bad for your health. That is just plain wrong. There are good fats and bad fats. You absolutely need the good fats in your diet, and you need to minimize your intake of bad fats. Knowing what foods contain good and bad fats is important to your health.

We have a lot more information on healthy eating in our Special Health Report, “Healthy Eating: A Guide to the New Nutrition.” You can find out more about it at my website.

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