This is a diet-related question I frequently get asked. The answer? It’s complicated.
Most fats from plant sources are unsaturated and are liquid at room temperature. Think olive oil, canola oil, the oils in nuts and seeds, the oils in fish and avocados. These are generally considered “good” fats because they help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol.
Coconut oil is different from most plant-based fats because it is saturated. You can tell because it’s solid at room temperature. In fact, coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat, which is a higher percentage than you’ll find in butter which comes in at 64%, or beef fat which contains 40%.
We know from lots and lots of studies, that saturated fats are not good for us because they tend to raise LDL (bad) cholesterol. Consumption also elevates blood inflammatory markers. And inflammation is never good because it increases the risk for heart attack and stroke.
So that means coconut oil is out, right? Not exactly, because the data that confirms the ill effects of saturated fat comes from studies that looked at animal sources like butter and the beef fat we mentioned earlier.
So what if the saturated fat comes from plants? Is the effect the same?
This is where it gets more complicated. The data generally shows that LDL levels do go up when coconut oil is consumed although the increase is less than we would see with an equivalent amount of butter. However, coconut oil also gives HDL (good) cholesterol a significant boost. This is an effect we don’t see at all from animal-based fats, and more significant than the increase we see from other plant-based fats.
We also don’t see the inflammatory response from coconut oil that we see from animal-based saturated fats.
So why do we get different responses from different kinds of saturated fats? Because, depending on their source, saturated fats contain varying numbers of carbon atoms. About half of the saturated fat in coconut oil is the 12-carbon variety, called lauric acid. By comparison, butter and beef fat have virtually no lauric acid.
All this doesn’t mean you should start eating coconut oil with wild abandon. The overall totality of the data favors consuming unsaturated fats over saturated ones, especially if you’re trying to keep your LDL down. And it’s always important to remember that consuming any extracted oils, even olive oil, is still far less desirable than consuming the whole plant source because you’re getting about 120 calories of pure fat in every tablespoon while missing out on all the other valuable nutrients you’ll find in nuts, seeds, olives and avocadoes.
The bottom line: of all the saturated fat options, coconut oil is the better choice, but if you’re managing your health, fats in their original form — like nuts and seeds — are the best choice of all.