Coconut oil promoters often refer to their product as a health food. What consumers often overlook, however, is that coconut oil is very high in saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease and raised cholesterol. The health hazards of coconut oil stem primarily from its artery-clogging saturated fat content.
Coconut Oil – Claims Vs. Reality
According to Dr. Michael Greger, an author and nutrition expert, some promoters claim that coconut oil can cure everything from jock itch to cancer to Alzheimer's disease. The scientific evidence backing these claims is lacking, however. What is known about coconut oil is that its saturated fat content can lead to increases in low-density lipoprotein, or "bad" cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the No. 1 risk factor for heart disease, notes Greger.
Saturated Fat, Bad Cholesterol and Atherosclerosis
A 2011 report published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture notes that increases in blood LDL cholesterol, caused by saturated fatty acids, can have an atherosclerotic effect on blood vessels. Atherosclerosis is the accumulation of lipids and other particles in blood vessel walls -- an occurrence that significantly increases the chance of heart attack and stroke. The 2005 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee concluded that saturated fats should be kept as low as possible to avoid cardiovascular disease risk.
Saturated Fat Levels
Coconut oil is approximately 90 percent saturated fat -- much higher than butter, which comes in at 64 percent. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends consuming less than 10 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat. If you're on a 2,000-calorie diet, you should allow for no more than 22 grams of saturated fat per day. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains almost 12 grams, which means two servings of coconut oil will put you over your entire daily limit for saturated fat.
Use It Sparingly
Coconut oil may not be all bad. In addition to raising LDL cholesterol, the oil can also raise high-density lipoprotein, the "good" cholesterol, notes Dr. Walter Willett, a member of the Harvard Health Letter Editorial Board. Having high HDL levels can protect against heart disease, which may provide some counterbalance to the unhealthy effects of coconut oil. This is likely due to a substance known as lauric acid, which makes up about half the saturated fat in coconut oil. Using coconut oil sparingly will likely not cause any problems, but it's still not the best choice to reduce the risk of heart disease, notes Willett.