How Does Coconut Oil Affect Cholesterol?

Will the saturated fats in coconut oil raise your cholesterol? More to the point, does this matter? Nutrition Diva gives us an update on the latest research.

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
3-minute read
Episode #271

A while back, I dedicated an episode to the benefits of coconut oil.  Despite breathless reports of "miraculous" powers,  I found scant evidence that coconut oil will melt off the pounds, balance your hormones, boost your immune system, or raise your IQ.

On the other hand, coconut oil is a very stable oil. It doesn't easily oxidize, spoil, or go rancid. It has a high smoke point and does not produce harmful chemicals when heated. This is because coconut oil is a highly saturated fat--which, in some circles, is considered a bad thing.  Saturated fat, after all, is said to raise cholesterol levels and heart disease risk.

Proponents of coconut oil argue that the saturated fats in coconut oil are not harmful to your heart. And at the time of my original article, there was very little research one way or the other. Lately, several of you have asked whether any newer research has come along to settle the question. This week's show takes a closer look at what we've learned about the fats in coconut oil.

coconut oil

What's in Coconut Oil? 

Saturated fat is not a single nutrient but an entire family of fatty acids. All fatty acids have a sort of spine or backbone made up of linked carbon molecules. This carbon "backbone" might have only 8 carbons or as many as 18.  Lauric acid, for example, has 12 carbon molecules in its backbone; stearic acid has 18.  

Chain length makes a big difference in how various fatty acids act in the body.

Chain length makes a big difference in how the various fatty acids act in the body, including how they affect cholesterol levels. Lauric acid, for example, raises LDL cholesterol levels. Stearic acid, on the other hand, has no effect on cholesterol levels.  

About 70% of the fats in coconut oil are saturated fatty acids known to raise cholesterol.  Another 14% or so are shorter-chain fats called MCTs, whose effects on cholesterol appear to be neutral. About 3% of the fat is stearic acid, which also doesn't affect cholesterol.  Coconut oil also contains small amounts of mono- and poly-unsaturated fats, which are not thought to raise cholesterol.  (See reference.)

See also: What Are MCTs?

How Does Coconut Oil Affect Cholesterol?

Based on its fatty acid profile, we could probably expect that replacing your olive oil with coconut oil might increase your cholesterol levels. There are lots of studies showing that coconut oil raises cholesterol in lab rats and other animals, but critics complain that these studies were done using a highly processed form of coconut oil and not the "extra virgin" coconut oil that's currently popular. The processing, however, does not change the fatty acid composition of the oil.

But what about in humans?


About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.