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Is coconut oil good for you?

Nutrition Hotline

By Reed Mangels PhD, RD

QUESTION: Is coconut oil good for you? I see it in so many vegan products.

K.B., via email.

ANSWER: The simple answer — No, coconut oil is not especially good for you. A whopping 92% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated fat, which has been linked to heart disease. “Only” 50% of beef fat is saturated while about 14% of the fat in olive oil and avocado is saturated fat. Dietary recommendations call for keeping saturated fats below 10% of calories per day. This means that if you’re eating 2000 calories, your diet should have no more than 200 calories (about 22 grams) from saturated fat. Vegans are fortunate in that our diets don’t have saturated fats from animal products, so we have a bit more room to eat some coconut-based treats; but that doesn’t mean gorging on coconut oil or coconut milk ice cream.

Two tablespoons of coconut oil have about 22 grams of saturated fat as does around ¾ cup of some coconut milk-based ice cream.

There are many claims on the internet that the fat in coconut oil is metabolized differently from other saturated fats. That’s not the case. Lauric acid, the predominant fat in coconut oil, is absorbed and metabolized in much the same way as are the saturated fats in butter and other animal products.1 While it’s true that people living in countries where coconut is commonly eaten often have low rates of heart disease, these people are also more active, less likely to be obese, and have other dietary and lifestyle factors that lower their heart disease risk. Studies that have subjects consume either coconut oil or an unsaturated oil (corn oil, for example) consistently find higher total and LDL-cholesterol in subjects eating coconut oil.1 Whether or not the higher HDL-cholesterol that is seen in some studies outweighs these factors needs further investigation. More research is also needed before we can determine if virgin or cold-pressed coconut oil is less harmful than conventional coconut oil.

These results don’t mean that you have to completely avoid products containing coconut. There are coconut-based products that are relatively low in saturated fat. For instance, a cup of the kind of coconut milk that people commonly drink (not the canned coconut milk used for cooking), has 4-5 grams of saturated fat, well within the limits.

Product Saturated Fat
Coconut oil, 1 Tbsp 11 grams
Commercial canned coconut milk, 1 cup 42 grams
Commercial canned coconut milk, light, 1 cup 16 grams
Refrigerated or aseptic package coconut milk, 1 cup 4 – 5 grams
Coconut yogurt, 4 oz 1.2 – 3.5 grams
Coconut frozen dessert, 1/2 cup 5 – 16 grams

1 Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A, Brown RC. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutr Rev. 2016; 74:267-80.

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