Coconut oil benefits and side effects have not been widely studied, and the scientific evidence does not overwhelmingly support or refute health claims. What scientists and medical professionals do know is that coconut oil is mostly saturated fat and, like other fats in this category, should be consumed in moderation to avoid negative effects on the cardiovascular system. Coconut oil can raise "good" cholesterol, but it also increases "bad" (LDL) cholesterol.
Coconut oil health risks include elevated total cholesterol and LDL.
Two Types of Fatty Acids
Coconut oil contains medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs can aid in weight loss because they are processed quickly, and more of the energy is used by the body rather than stored as fat. Nearly half the triglycerides in coconut oil come from lauric acid, which is made of both medium- and long-chain triglycerides (LCTs).
LCTs raise total cholesterol as well as low-density lipids commonly known as "bad" cholesterol. Coconut oil does not raise total cholesterol and LDL as much as some other saturated fats, such as butter. However, the danger of coconut oil is that it raises LDL and total cholesterol much more than unsaturated fats such as canola oil. To reap the most cardiovascular benefit from coconut oil, consumers should look for special formulations of coconut oil that are made of 100 percent MCTs.
Coconut Oil Uses
Virgin coconut oil is processed without heat and is unbleached. It retains much of the flavor and aroma of coconuts and is best used uncooked or in baked goods.
Refined coconut oil has been bleached and heat-treated to remove odors, providing a higher smoke point than virgin coconut oil. Refined coconut oil uses include high-temperature cooking such as frying and sauteing.
Hydrogenated coconut oil is an ingredient in many processed foods and is the least-healthy form of coconut oil. The small amounts of unsaturated fats in coconut oil are hydrogenated to give the oil a longer shelf life. The addition of hydrogen atoms converts unsaturated fats into unhealthy trans fats.
Coconut Oil's Cardiovascular Claims
Claims that consuming coconut oil improves cardiovascular health have not been widely supported by evidence. In general, populations that see the most cardiovascular benefits from coconut oil tend to have diets high in fish, fruits and vegetables and low in refined sugar and processed foods. Populations where coconuts are indigenous consume a variety of fresh coconut products, including the flesh, milk and cream, rather than processed oil only.
According to a 2016 literature review published in Nutrition Reviews, studies of populations that consume large amounts of coconut products, including oil, are not consistent with the typical American diet because the subjects ate less refined carbs and saturated animal fats and more fruits and vegetables. Eating processed foods, sweets and red meat offsets many of the potential benefits of coconut oil.
Recommendation for Saturated Fats
The 2016 literature review about cardiovascular risks associated with coconut oil also found that coconut oil should be considered the same as other saturated fats based on how it affects cholesterol levels. This conclusion agrees with the American Heart Association (AHA) guidelines that equate coconut oil with other types of saturated fats.
Effects on the Digestive System
Daily consumption of virgin coconut oil can lead to digestive upset in some people. In a 2017 study published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, individuals experienced stomach pain, vomiting and/or diarrhea during the first week of supplementing their diets with 2 tablespoons of coconut oil per day. The most common side effect was loose stool, which generally resolved after the second week of supplementation.
- Harvard Health Publishing: Cracking the Coconut Oil Craze
- Nutrition Reviews: Coconut Oil Consumption and Cardiovascular Risk Factors
- University of Florida IFAS Extension: Coconut Oil: A Heart Healthy Fat?
- Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Daily Consumption of Virgin Coconut Oil Increases High-Density Lipoprotein Cholesterol Levels in Healthy Volunteers: A Randomized Crossover Trial
- South Dakota Department of Health: Coconut Oil – Healthy or Unhealthy?
- Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: Coconut Oil
- American Heart Association Journals: Circulation: Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association
- American Heart Association: Saturated Fat