Coconut oil is healthier than what?

clear glass container with coconut oil

Coconut oil has been getting health benefit praise for a while and, often makes headlines as a “healthier” fat. The real question we should be asking is “healthier than what?”

From a nutritional standpoint, the best-added fat is from a monounsaturated source. Why? Because replacing saturated fats with monounsaturated fats serves the nutritional purpose of lowering blood cholesterol and improving heart health. Dietary recommendations from all leading health organizations emphasize a diet low in saturated fat. When it comes to impacting health, at best, coconut, palm, cocoa butter, and dairy fats may have a neutral impact on heart health and some anti-inflammatory properties. In cooking and food production however, a saturated fat is often needed for taste, texture, and melting point. Perhaps, in that case a saturated fat high in medium-chain triglycerides is the better option. Let’s look a little deeper.

Oils contain a mix of saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated. This mix impacts everything from melting point to healthfulness. This chart below provide a good visual of fatty acid content in various oils.

Monounsaturated fats are dubbed the “healthy fats” because they help to reduce inflammation and lower risk of heart disease.

Fats with high amounts of monounsaturated fats include:

  • Olive oil
  • Almond oil
  • High oleic sunflower oil
  • Avocado oil
  • High oleic safflower
  • Hazelnut oil
  • Canola oil

What about fat sources with high amounts of polyunsaturated fats? 

These fats contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and are very prevalent in the American food supply. At one time it was suggested that people cut back on sources of omega-6 to improve heart-healthy ratios of omega-3:omega-6. An improved ratio is better achieved by increasing the consumption of omega-3 fatty acids. Fish are the primary source of omega-3’s which is why I am a fan of adding sardines and anchovies to sandwiches, salads and topped on crackers with cheese.

Fats with higher amounts of polyunsaturated fat for consideration include:

  • Grapeseed oil
  • Walnut oil
  • Hemp Seed oil
  • Soybean oil
  • Corn oil
  • Flaxseed oil
  • Safflower oil
  • Wheat germ

Of course, soybean and corn oil is most often sourced from genetically engineered crops that require more pesticides to kill superweeds. If you are looking to avoid genetically engineered ingredients purchase, oils that are certified organic and read ingredient lists on labels.

Levels of Saturated Fat in a Healthy Diet

Saturated fat is in our food supply. It adds flavor and texture. I certainly add coconut oil for flavor and occasional substitute for butter or lard. It doesn’t need to be completely avoided, just limited.

Leading agencies continue to recommend a diet low in saturated fat. The guidelines are:

  • Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the World Health Organization, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics all recommend that saturated fats shouldn’t exceed 10% of total calories. On a 2000 calories eating plan that suits most people that is a limit  22 grams of saturated fat per day
  • Guidelines from the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology recommend limiting saturated fat intake even further, to less than 7% for the general population, and 5% to 6% for those with high LDL cholesterol. For a 2,000-kcal eating plan that is a 11-15 grams limit of saturated fat.

Isn’t coconut oil “healthy fat” because it contains MCTs?

Coconut oil is highly saturated, with higher saturation than butter or lard. All saturated fats are not created equal, however. Their fatty acid chains vary!

This is what makes coconut oil, palm oil, palm kernel oil, cocoa butter, and dairy fat interesting. 

These fats are mostly saturated with medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Research done on heart disease and saturated fat has not included sources high in MCT like coconut oil. Whether or not saturated fats containing mostly MCT’s are detrimental to health is controversial. There is not enough research to villainize these oils specifically or to make them a “health food” as coconut oil has been made out to be in health and nutrition media.

My Bottom Line

Saturated fats high in MCT’s are better for you than saturated fats with low MCT’s because they likely neither raise or lower cholesterol. They are also thought to be an alternative source of energy during exercise but have not shown any performance improvements when combined with carbohydrates. When consumed as the single source of fuel, performance declines.

Saturated fats with MCT’s are not healthier than poly or monounsaturated options. So don’t go replacing olive, almond, avocado, or high oleic sunflower seed oil for coconut oil. 

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Nutrition Strategist and Registered Dietitian with twenty years of experience creating nutrition strategies that influence and inspire people to accomplish big things.