Coconut Oil and Cholesterol: An Unhealthy Mix

Measuring spoon of coconut oil, how it relates to cholesterol

If you're wondering, "Is coconut oil healthy?", it’s probably best to keep the lid on it. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the bad in the oil outweighs the good. It seems that’s a message many people don’t understand. Recent surveys say 72 percent of Americans rated coconut oil as a healthy food compared to 37 percent of nutritionists. So, where is the disconnect? UnityPoint Health dietitian, Krista Kohls, offers advice on cooking oil that’ll help keep you heart-healthy.

Unhealthy Facts of Coconut Oil

“In nutrition, there is always a fad, and coconut oil happens to be a recent one,” Kohls says. “Unfortunately, there isn’t always sound science behind fads.”

Kohls says coconut oil is unhealthy because it is mostly made up of saturated fats, which is why it is solid at room temperature. Solid fats raise LDL levels, or bad cholesterol levels, which are associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease.

Benefits of Coconut Oil

Kohls says because coconut oil is plant-based, it can raise HDL levels, or good cholesterol levels, however, it's not enough to offset the increase in LDL levels. It also has a higher smoke point, meaning you can use it in high-heat cooking and has a delicious, nutty flavor for baking or a neutral flavor when refined for cooking.

“It is also excellent as a moisturizer, so I joke it is probably better topically on your skin instead of going into our bodies,” Kohls say.

Cooking Oil Labels

If you’re wondering what to look for on the label of your cooking oil, here are some tips.

  • Look for monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Research shows these can reduce heart disease risk when used to replace saturated or trans-fat in a diet.
  • Avoid products with any hydrogenated oils or trans-fat (stick margarines, shortening and processed foods).
  • Limit products high in saturated fats (butter, coconut oil, lard).

“In general, avoid trans-fat, use moderation with saturated fats and include monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats daily. Good sources include olive oil, avocado, nuts, nut butters and seeds," Kohls says.

Finding the Healthiest Cooking Oils

Kohls says her number one choice in the oils department is extra virgin olive oil. She says it has loads of antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties, and it’s high in monounsaturated fats.

“I always have extra virgin olive oil on-hand for salad dressing, drizzling on beans or lentils or as finishing oil on fish, chicken or lower heat cooking,” Kohls says.

The middle-of-the-pack oils include:

  • Avocado oil (high heat)
  • Sunflower oil (high heat)
  • Almond oil (high heat)
  • Peanut oil (medium heat)
  • Sesame oil (medium heat)
  • Grapeseed oil (medium heat)
  • Walnut oil (low heat)
  • Canola oil (high heat)
  • Vegetable/corn oil (high heat)
  • Refined/light olive oil (high heat)

Kohls says these oils are all tied in her book because they have a combination of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. However, she points out it’s important to consider the smoke point of the oils. If you are cooking and your oil begins to smoke, your temperature is too high, and it’s best to throw it out. High-heat oils can be used for cooking methods, like browning, and medium heat oils are good for oven cooking (roasting and baking), stir frying and sautéing.

Coconut oil falls at the very end of Kohls’ list of recommended cooking oils because of its potential to raise cholesterol levels.

“In general, I recommend people don’t go overboard on buying oils because they do go bad, so having one medium or high-heat oil and one low-heat oil is a good idea to start,” Kohls says.

What About Cooking Sprays?

A cooking spray just mystifies the oil, so it is lighter when you spray it. There are companies that just use the oil as the only ingredient. Kohls recommends looking for options that have as few ingredients as possible.

“Some companies just use the oil as the ingredient, or you can purchase a mister and put your own oil in the bottle,” Kohls says.

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