You’ve probably heard two opposing views when it comes to coconut, coconut milk, or coconut oil, and your heart health:
- It’s bad for your heart because it’s loaded with saturated fat.
- It’s good for your heart because the type of saturated fat it contains is different than the type you find in animal-derived saturated fat.
Not surprisingly, like so many nutrition related debates, the answer is still a bit fuzzy. Here is what we do know, and what our advice is about including coconut products in your diet.
Coconut (and the resulting milk/oil) is high in saturated fat: One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 12 grams saturated fat. For comparison, one tablespoon of olive oil contains 2 grams saturated fat, while one tablespoon of butter contains 7 grams of saturated fat.
The saturated fat in coconut IS different than the saturated fat in animal products: Early research shows that the primary types of saturated fat in coconut oil don’t have the same negative effect on cholesterol levels and heart disease risk as the primary types found in meat and animal products. In coconut, most of the saturated fat is coming from lauric acid and stearic acid (the same type found in dark chocolate). Research indicates that lauric acid might boost HDL (“good”) cholesterol, but also raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. For comparison, the types of saturated fats found primarily in products such as fatty beef and butter, palmitic and myristic acid, have been linked to inflammation and higher rates of heart disease. Please remember, this is early research— it’s pointing in a certain direction, but nothing is known yet for sure.
Coconut and coconut milk aren’t empty calories: Nutrient wise, coconut does bring more than just saturated fat to the table. One-quarter cup of coconut milk provides 12 grams of total fat (important for absorption of fat soluble vitamins and a feeling of satiety), 6% of your daily iron needs, 3% of your daily zinc needs, and 4% of your daily potassium needs. Coconut milk is rich and flavorful, resultantly; you come away from meals feeling more physically and psychologically satisfied. It’s also really delicious and fun to use in the kitchen, and can add flavor and moisture to vegetarian dishes, which is certainly a benefit if it gets people to eat more veggies/go meatless a few times a week.
Coconut oil can fit into healthy diet/healthy heart recommendations: The American Heart Association recommends that less than 7% of your daily calories come from saturated fat, which would be less than 12 grams of saturated fat total each day for someone following an 1800 calorie diet and 15 grams for a 2000 calorie diet. A teaspoon of coconut oil on a piece of toast or used in a veggie stir fry provides 4 grams of saturated fat, leaving less than 8 grams of saturated fat for the rest of the day. That leaves room for one other high saturated fat item, like a 1-ounce piece of cheese (6 grams of saturated fat).
The bottom line: There’s a strong possibility that the saturated fat from coconut products will turn out to be better for us than the saturated fat from high fat animal products, but the idea that these different types of saturated fats react differently in our bodies is still fairly new. For now, the saturated fat in coconut products still doesn’t have the research behind it to show it is a better choice than monounsaturated fats like olive and canola oil. Plus, much of the overall health of a fat depends upon what it’s paired with in your diet. So, if coconut milk tends to be paired with veggie and tofu curries, then you’re increasing the health of the meal overall. For now, stick to the saturated fat guidelines set by the American Heart Association, no matter where your saturated fat is coming from, until we know more.
Tell us! Are you a coconut fan? How do you use coconut in your diet?