The Coconut Oil Controversy

By Melanie Warner

Few foods stump nutritionists more than coconut oil. Enthusiasts credit the serum with preventing heart disease, speeding weight loss, and bolstering immune function, but government guidelines and some nutritionists continue to warn against saturated fat—including the 91 percent saturated fat in coconut oil. “There’s so much conflicting information out there,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. “It’s hard to know what to believe.”

Several studies show that saturated fat boosts LDL—the bad cholesterol—which, in elevated levels, has been linked to heart disease. Hence, the USDA and the American Heart Association frown on coconut oil. But emerging evidence indicates that not all saturated fats are created equal. Coconut oil, for instance, contains lots of virus-fighting lauric acid, which is also the primary fatty acid in immunity-boosting breast milk. Additionally, recent findings from Australia’s Garvan Institute of Medical Research suggest that a coconut oil–rich diet guards against insulin resistance, a major precursor to type 2 diabetes.

Coconut oil may even help your heart, since its medium-chain fatty acids can raise HDL, the good cholesterol. Walter Willett, MD, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, says this tropical oil needs more research, but potential health benefits have been overlooked: “Coconut oil is not nearly as bad as would be assumed given its high saturated-fat content.”

How can you incorporate coconut oil into your diet? Bruce Fife, ND, of Colorado Springs, Colorado, suggests cooking with the milky-white substance regularly. It’s more heat stable than many vegetable oils, so substitute it in stir-fries and other high-temperature dishes.