Saturated fats: Why all the hubbub over coconuts?

By American Heart Association News

Coconut oil, with its sweet smell of the tropics and its purported claims to cure what ails you, is everywhere. People are using it in their shampoos, skin creams, and even in their smoothies and coffee.

Chatter spiked even more recently, after a new science advisory from the American Heart Association recommended against ingesting coconut oil.

The advisory(link opens in new window), an analysis of more than 100 published research studies dating as far back as the 1950s, reaffirmed that saturated fats raise LDL, or "bad" cholesterol. Tropical vegetable oils such as coconut oil contain high levels of saturated fats, and the authors reported that coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol in seven controlled trials.

The paper pointed out there are great benefits to replacing saturated fats – such as coconut oil, butter, beef fat or palm oil – with healthier, polyunsaturated fats. Some studies have even suggested that this could help lower cardiovascular disease risk as much as cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, the authors noted.

While the statement covered many types of saturated fats, many people focused on coconut oil – which has of late been touted as a good-for-you alternative. A quick cruise on social media or the web comes up with claims that coconut and its many derivations help with weight loss, improve metabolism and lower cholesterol. A recent survey reported in The New York Times(link opens in new window) showed 72 percent of the public, compared with 37 percent of nutritionists, called coconut oil “healthy.”

Marie-Pierre St-Onge, Ph.D., thinks she might know why there’s such a big difference.

She conducted research that showed a type of fat in coconut oil can increase metabolism and boost weight loss. That ingredient is called medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, and St-Onge’s study reported that they are processed by the body differently than other dietary fats. In addition to higher saturated fat content, St-Onge noted that coconut oil has a higher proportion of these than most other fats or oils.

St-Onge, an associate professor of nutritional medicine at Columbia University, said much of the hype of coconut’s benefits is liberal “extrapolation” of that fact as well as other research.

However, she said, many people tend to overlook an important catch in her research.

The oil she used in her study was a special 100 percent medium-chain coconut oil. Most coconut oils typically have 13 percent to 14 percent of this medium-chain triglyceride, she said. So, people would have to eat large quantities to replicate the results.

“No one eats 150 grams (10 tablespoons) of coconut oil in a day,” said St-Onge.

Nor should they.

Coconut oil, extracted from the meat of what can loosely be called a seed, (link opens in new window)a fruit or a nut, is mostly saturated fat, about 82 percent. One tablespoon adds up to more than 11 grams of saturated fats, according to the federal National Nutrient Database. That’s nearly the total daily limit of 13 grams recommended by the American Heart Association(link opens in new window).

“I think people associate coconut with vacation and the tropics. It’s something new to latch onto,” said Lisa Young, Ph.D., an adjunct professor of nutrition at New York University and a registered dietitian. “People think they can have two tablespoons a day and the weight will disappear; they want to disassociate from reality.”

In March, St-Onge presented research(link opens in new window) using a blend of coconut and other fats showing that lower doses of medium-chain triglycerides did not increase calorie burn in overweight adolescents. A study in April in the European Journal of Nutrition(link opens in new window) also found coconut oil did not increase metabolism or improve cardiometabolic risk markers among overweight women.

St-Onge said she is surprised last week’s science advisory stirred so much conversation.

“And people have called it a coconut oil report,” she said. “It’s a report on stated knowledge about saturated fat. It puts things in perspective.”

There is no magic formula, said Young, who acknowledges she loves the flavor of coconuts – but doesn’t eat meat or butter. A healthy diet, she said, is “a balancing act” that each individual has the power to achieve. She counsels people to eat unsaturated fats found in fish and non-tropical vegetable oils.

“It’s a moderation thing,” she said. “People don’t want to face reality when it comes to their own dieting, their own health. They want to believe in wishful thinking. … But thinking you can have unlimited amounts of one particular thing and everything will disappear is not based on reality.”

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