The American Heart Association recently released a report advising against the use of coconut oil.
The Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory reviewed existing data on saturated fat, showing coconut oil increased LDL ("bad") cholesterol in seven out of seven controlled trials. Researchers didn't see a difference between coconut oil and other oils high in saturated fat, like butter, beef fat and palm oil. In fact, 82% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, according to the data — far beyond butter (63%), beef fat (50%) and pork lard (39%).
"Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil," the American Heart Association said in the Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory.
Frank Sacks, lead author on the report, said he has no idea why people think coconut oil is healthy. It's almost 100% fat. Past weight loss studies might be responsible.
But the head of the University of Minnesota's Department of Food Sciences believes the new recommendation, and the headlines that followed, went a bit far.
"It's not as bad as it is portrayed by the AHA at this point," said Dr. Kumar Mallikarjunan. "When you look at all the saturated fatty acids, like butter or palm oil or coconut oil, this is the better one."
Unlike butter, he says, coconut oil has antioxidants and is more easily processed by the liver.
"Don't throw the jar away," he said. "It has its value, it has its merits ... but that doesn't mean that you just go indulge on it."
Mallikarjunan says olive oil and canola oil are better for your heart because they are high in unsaturated fats, but he says he believes the best approach is to use all oils in moderation, because the heart health isn't the only consideration.
"I always ask somebody else, do you want to die of heart attack or do you want to die of cancer?" he said. "Pick your poison."
The AHA recommends eating no more than 6% of saturated fat as part of total daily calories for those who need lower cholesterol.
But while the AHA warns against it, people who cut saturated fat out of their diet might not necessarily lower their heart disease risk, a 2015 BMJ review suggested. That's because some people fill the void with sugar, white flour and empty calories. Also, some fat is important to help bodies absorb nutrients from other foods. Many have said butter has gotten a bad reputation.
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