Ask the Doctors

Dear Doctor: Coconut oil has gotten to be really popular, but now there's a study that says it's just as bad for you as beef fat and butter. How is that possible? It has no animal fat whatsoever.

Dear Reader: Coconut oil is definitely having a moment. It has gone from being a specialty item in the health food store to sitting side-by-side with the rest of the cooking oils in major grocery stores. And you're correct -- coconut oil is definitely not an animal product. However, that doesn't prevent it from being a saturated fat.

Coconut oil turns out to have a significantly higher percentage of saturated fat than does butter, beef fat or lard. Coconut oil is between 80 and 90 percent saturated fat. Butter is about 65 percent saturated fat, while lard and beef fat each come in at 40 percent saturated fat. The reason this is an issue is because saturated fat in the diet is associated with a rise in blood levels of low-density lipoprotein, or LDL cholesterol, the so-called "bad" cholesterol. Blood levels of LDL are tied to heart attack risk and cardiovascular disease.

But coconut oil has a few surprises as well. At the same time that it acts like a traditional saturated fat by raising LDL levels, it also has a beneficial effect on blood levels of high-density lipoprotein, or HDL, the so-called "good" cholesterol. While LDL is associated with the buildup of fatty deposits, known as plaque, in the arteries, HDL is believed to help clear that plaque away. It may be this beneficial effect on HDL that helped coconut oil earn a reputation as a healthful fat.

That brings us to the new study you referenced, which is actually an advisory from the American Heart Association. With cardiovascular disease causing more than 17 million deaths per year, the AHA used the advisory to reiterate the health benefits of choosing unsaturated fats over those that are saturated. In the report, the AHA cites coconut and palm oils as saturated fats to avoid, along with the usual suspects -- butter, lard and beef fat. That's why the news stories had those "coconut oil will kill you" headlines.

We believe the subject deserves a bit more nuance. First, it's important to remember that although fats are notorious for high calorie counts and an association with weight gain and heart disease, they're also essential nutrients. They're needed for metabolic functions like helping with the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins and micronutrients, and are required for the synthesis of the steroid hormones testosterone, estrogen and progesterone. The message is not that fats should be cut from the diet, but that they should be chosen wisely. We're also very interested in the continuing research that suggests inflammation plays as much of a role in cardiovascular disease as do cholesterol counts.

But back to coconut oil. In our opinion, it's not a miracle food and it's not a poison. It's a saturated fat with nice flavor and some very interesting nutritional properties. Just like butter or lard, coconut oil can be safely used in moderation.

(Send your questions to askthedoctors@mednet.ucla.edu, or write: Ask the Doctors, c/o Media Relations, UCLA Health, 924 Westwood Blvd., Suite 350, Los Angeles, CA, 90095. Owing to the volume of mail, personal replies cannot be provided.)

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