For thousands of years, tropical cultures spanning the globe have used coconut oil as a food, cosmetic ingredient and medicinal aid. Despite its rising popularity in the U.S., coconut oil carries health concerns because of its high saturated fat content and potential to raise your cholesterol levels. Fortunately for coconut oil lovers, current research suggests that the type of saturated fat in this oil is not as hazardous as once believed.
Low-density lipoprotein cholesterol is a blood lipid often referred to as "bad" cholesterol because of its role in atherosclerosis. As the American Heart Association explains, having high levels of LDL cholesterol in your bloodstream increases your risk of cardiovascular disease, because LDL has a tendency to bind with other substances and form plaque deposits in your arteries. Although a variety of lifestyle factors can influence your cholesterol profile, consuming a diet high in saturated fat is one habit linked to high LDL levels.
Despite being rich in saturated fat, coconut oil does not appear to raise LDL cholesterol in humans. A study published in the June 2011 issue of "Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition" found that coconut oil consumption is associated with higher HDL or "good" cholesterol, but neither raises nor lowers LDL cholesterol. Additional research published in "Clinical Biochemistry" in September 2004 suggests that coconut oil may protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation, reducing its tendency to accumulate on your artery walls.
Compared to other saturated fats, coconut oil may be less likely to raise your LDL cholesterol and contribute to heart disease because of its specific components. In addition to containing biologically active polyphenols, the fat in coconut oil consists largely of medium-chain triglycerides, which are metabolized differently than most fats and transported directly to your liver. As a result, coconut oil may have a beneficial effect on your blood lipid profile rather than raising LDL cholesterol.
Diet choices, such as coconut oil consumption, aren't the only factors that affect your LDL cholesterol levels. As the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute explains, your weight, age, activity level and genetics can also play a role in how high or low your LDL cholesterol is. If you're at risk for heart disease or have unfavorable blood lipids, consult your physician to determine the proper diet, lifestyle and medication choices to reduce your risk.