How does Coconut Oil Affect Cholesterol Levels?
Coconut oil has bad press because of its very high content of saturated fats. Currently, in both the US and Canada, cardiovascular guidelines recommend decreasing saturated fatty acids, as they tend to increase blood levels of LDL cholesterol (“bad” cholesterol) increasing the risk of heart disease. But, you may have heard about the dietary benefits of coconut oil, such as strengthening the immune system, promoting weight loss, even claims of slowing the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, reducing the symptoms of menopause, and so on. Confused? Is coconut oil healthy or not? Is it bad for cholesterol? Is it safe to consume coconut oil when you have high cholesterol?
Is coconut oil good or bad for blood cholesterol levels?
To clear up the confusion surrounding coconut oil and cholesterol, it should be noted that all oils and fats are composed of different types of fatty acids in different proportions and that each of these has qualities and defects. For example, 15% of sesame oil fatty acids are saturated and 85% are unsaturated (polyunsaturated + monounsaturated). Coconut oil, which is of particular interest to us, is an exception for vegetable fats because it is highly saturated (90%).
Saturated fats, two words quite well known among consumers but unfortunately, misunderstood by most people that have a tendency to put them all in one basket. Indeed, within the family of saturated fats, all are not so bad! Only long-chain fatty acids are detrimental to our health; Saturated fatty acids with medium and short chains should not be considered as harmful, they are more easily assimilated by our organism and therefore without danger of increased cholesterol and cardiovascular risks.
In general, most saturated fatty acids tend to increase LDL cholesterol, called “bad” cholesterol, but their hypercholesterolemic effect differs. In the coconut, over the half of the saturated fatty acids are medium chains that are present as lauric acid, which is also the main saturated fatty acid in breast milk. Myristic acid and palmitic acid, meanwhile, account for 20% and 10% of saturated fatty acids of the coconut. Compared with other fatty acids (saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated combined), lauric acid has a more favorable effect on the ratio of total cholesterol/HDL (a high ratio is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease) by increasing HDL levels (“good” cholesterol). In this sense, two studies have shown interesting effects of the consumption of saturated fats from coconut oil, compared to those from butter or monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated on different risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Also, when compared with trans fats, saturated fats are still a better choice because they do not adversely affect HDL (“good” cholesterol). Moreover, the replacement of trans fats with saturated fats (including from coconut oil) resulted in an increase in HDL cholesterol, the desired effect in improving cardiovascular health.
However, polyunsaturated fats remain more favorable to cardiovascular health than saturated fats from coconut oil. This is indicated by a study involving 60 Sri Lankans who assessed the effect of the replacement of coconut oil with soybean and sesame oil, rich in polyunsaturated fats. After 12 months, the diet higher in polyunsaturated fatty acids produced a decrease in total cholesterol as well as LDL, which did not induce the diet containing coconut oil.
So, can you have it in the kitchen?
Yes, you can have a bottle of coconut oil in the kitchen armoire and use it from time to time if you are in perfect health. It is an oil that has a practical pastry side compared to other vegetable oils because it remains solid at room temperature. It has a sweet nut flavor that appeals to taste and its texture lends itself well to certain preparations without cooking or stir-fries with a tropical touch. In a context where there are plenty of good vegetable oils available on the market, you can vary them. And coconut oil is part of that variety.
Choose virgin coconut oil and not the refined one
Please note that the rather neutral effect on cholesterol is only true for real virgin coconut oil. It is cold extracted from ripe and fresh coconuts, without heating or chemicals. It is considered unrefined. You spot it because it has a sweet smell of coconut, unlike hydrogenated or bleached and deodorized coconut oil, much cheaper but also much less healthy because of its trans fats content more dangerous for cholesterol and health than saturated fats.
Should you consume coconut oil if you have high cholesterol?
Although different types of saturated fatty acids are not all damaging to the same degree for cardiovascular health, replacing them with unsaturated fats (monounsaturated and polyunsaturated) is still desirable since it has been shown that it allows reducing the risk of coronary heart disease. This is even more true if your doctor has advised you that your cholesterol is high and you need to actively improve it. In this case, coconut oil is not the choice for you. Opt mainly for oils in the family of unsaturated fatty acids, rich in omega 9 like olive oil, or even better oils rich in omega 3 such as rapeseed, linseed, camelina … since it is no longer to be demonstrated that we are cruelly lacking omega 3 in our diet and that these oils significantly reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. The sporadic consumption of the whole coconut, despite its high content in saturated fat, nevertheless brings other nutrients of interest (fibers, vitamins, minerals, proteins) in addition to its unique taste so appreciated.
In sum, among the sources of highly saturated fat, coconut oil seems to have rather neutral effects on cardiovascular health. Coconut oil would increase the “bad” cholesterol (LDL), but also the “good” (HDL). It would have a rather neutral effect on cholesterol. However, if coconut oil is compared with other unsaturated oils, such as olive, sesame or canola oil, the latter remain more advantageous from the point of view of cardiovascular health.