Heart experts issue a new warning

Health food aficionados have long praised coconut oil for its versatility and health benefits. It’s been touted as everything from a healthy alternative to other fats to nature’s perfect moisturizer for your skin and hair. While it’s still safe to slather on the outside of your body if you find that kind of thing beneficial, you definitely shouldn’t be eating it in any significant quantity. That advice comes from recently updated guidelines from the American Heart Association.

"While some will continue to debate its health benefits, the American Heart Association states it is not a good source of fat," said Geisinger registered dietitian nutritionist Samantha Cortese, RDN, LDN, CDE. "It’s high in saturated fats, which have been shown to raise LDL cholesterol levels. A few small studies have suggested the saturated fat in coconut oil were less harmful than other saturated fats, but until proven in larger studies it is recommended to include healthy unsaturated fats such as extra virgin olive oil."

How does coconut oil stack up?

You need fat in your diet, even saturated fat in small amounts. But when it comes to saturated fat, coconut oil packs a wallop. It’s roughly 82 percent saturated fat, which is higher than other sources such as butter (63 percent), beef fat (50 percent) and pork lard (39 percent).

"The American Heart Association recommends you consume no more than five to six percent of your daily calories from saturated fat, or about 11 grams if you eat a 2,000-calorie diet," said Cortese. "One tablespoon of coconut oil alone will push you over that limit."

Saturated fats are proven to increase your LDL cholesterol, the so-called "bad" cholesterol. It leads to plaque buildup in your arteries, a condition called atherosclerosis. This can cause your arteries to narrow, raise your blood pressure, and increase your risk for heart disease, heart attack and stroke. It is also important to note that refined flours and high sugar intake with poor intake of antioxidants from fruits, vegetables and whole grains promotes inflammation increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Previous studies mythologized coconut oil’s health benefits, claiming that another type of fat they contain—called medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs—would help to ramp up your metabolism. While MCTs can do this, coconuts don’t have enough of them, or the right kind, to provide a benefit.

What type of oil should you use?

Vegetable oils in general are a better alternative for cooking. The American Heart Association recommends using canola, corn, peanut, safflower, soybean, sunflower or a mix of these oils instead of coconut oil, butter or lard when you’re cooking. They contain more "good for you" fats instead of saturated fats.

If you really want to give your health a boost, try using extra virgin olive oil instead. It’s one of the keystones of the Mediterranean diet. Researchers have found both extra virgin olive oil and the Mediterranean diet can help to protect your brain from Alzheimer’s disease and improve your digestive health.

The Mediterranean diet focuses on eating lots of fruits, vegetables, whole foods, fish, legumes and lean proteins. People in countries around the Mediterranean also eat less red meat and use herbs and spices instead of salt to season their food. Coupled with frequent use of extra virgin olive oil during cooking and as an accompaniment to salads and whole grain breads, this approach to eating has many proven health benefits.

"As with most things in life, moderation is the key. You need a moderate amount of fat in your diet, and extra virgin olive oil—instead of coconut oil—is a great choice," said Cortese. "It often helps to seek the guidance of a registered dietitian nutritionist to map out a healthy eating plan that includes the right mix of nutrients including healthy fats to promote good health."

Samantha Cortese, RDN, LDN, CDE, is a registered dietitian nutritionist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre. For more information, please visit Geisinger.org.

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