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A Doctor Explains Why Saturated Fat In Coconut Oil Isn't A Problem

January 8, 2017

It's no secret that I'm a big fan of eating fat as a way to reach optimal well-being, and coconut oil is one of my favorites. And yet, if you've ever read a nutrition label on the back of a jar of organic, raw, cold-pressed coconut oil, you'd see that it's high in saturated fat. Isn't that a no-no; doesn't saturated fat cause cholesterol to increase?

Glad you asked. Now we know that eating fat doesn't necessarily mean being fat: It's far more nuanced. As a doctor, I'm fascinated by longevity and how dietary fat affects our bodies. One thing that makes coconut oil unique is that it contains medium-chain triglyceride oil or MCT oil, and MCTs are like super fuel for your cells. Your cells burn these MCTs for energy while storing very little of them as fat, boosting metabolism and supporting your immune system in the bargain.

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What is "MCT oil," and is it good for you?

MCTs help balance appetite-controlling and other hormones. They keep you feeling full and satisfied. They improve your cholesterol profile.

They also help you burn fat. One study1 found MCT oils help reduce body fat and triglycerides better than omega-6 vegetable oils. After eight weeks, the MCT-oil group lost more weight, body fat, and subcutaneous fat while experiencing a 15 percent drop in triglycerides and LDL ("bad” cholesterol).

As MCT-rich coconut oil becomes more popular, you might be concerned about its high amounts of saturated fat and potential to raise cholesterol. As a doctor, I constantly tell patients that high cholesterol can become a problem when labs yield abnormal results, so I understand your concern.

The nitty-gritty difference between "good" and "bad" cholesterol.

Here's the deal. Cholesterol is not black and white, so classifying it as "good" or "bad" vastly oversimplifies this molecule, which helps synthesize vitamin D and hormones while maintaining cell structure among other duties. Some fats do raise cholesterol whereas others lower cholesterol. Yet even when saturated fat does raise your cholesterol, the type of cholesterol becomes more important than cholesterol itself.

Studies show saturated fat raises LDL, yet it also raises HDL ("good" cholesterol). On the other hand, sugar lowers HDL2. Ultimately, the ratio of total cholesterol to LDL cholesterol3 better predicts heart attacks than LDL on its own. Coconut oil can contain up to 40 percent saturated fat, yet interestingly, countries with the highest intakes of coconut oil have the lowest rates of heart disease4.

While some research5 shows coconut oil contains higher amounts of saturated fat and does increase total cholesterol, those amounts do not increase our heart attack or stroke risk. In fact, one study6 among lean, heart-disease- and stroke-free Pacific Islanders who consumed up to 63 percent of their calories from coconut fat found total cholesterol rose but so did their "good" HDL.

Other studies find lipid profiles improve7 on high-fat diets containing coconut oil. Researchers found saturated fat from coconuts was not the culprit that negatively affected cholesterol profile. Instead, the coconut oil's overall effect raised HDL while lowering triglycerides and small LDL cholesterol particles, which is definitely a good thing.

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So...coconut oil is good for you?

Coconut oil provides other benefits too, like lowering insulin levels and protecting against heart disease. The predominant fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid, which provides antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antiviral benefits. Quality saturated fat in coconut oil or MCT oil becomes far different from what you get in a fast-food cheeseburger. Lumping them all together becomes like putting cauliflower and cupcakes under the carbohydrate category.

Don't be afraid of saturated fat, but get it from healthy sources like coconut and grass-fed beef, which automatically edges out unhealthy sources. Likewise, total cholesterol does not accurately predict heart disease or stroke. Inflammation becomes the culprit for most diseases, and coconut oil is highly anti-inflammatory.

If you still have high cholesterol, ask your doctor the right questions, and most importantly, get the right tests. Request a particle-size test to check for particle size and number. Other cholesterol tests are simply outdated. A routine, regular cholesterol test won't reveal particle size.

Simply put, the real villain that robs our health and increases our waistlines is sugar and anything that breaks down to sugar like refined carbohydrates. Quality fats like coconut oil and more anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats help edge out those sugars and inflammatory omega-6 fats.

Combine healthy fats with a whole, low-processed-foods diet, and you have an effective strategy to normalize cholesterol while reducing your risk for heart disease, obesity, type 2 diabetes, and numerous other chronic conditions. With a healthy, whole foods diet, saturated fat should not be a problem.

If you're interested in learning more, I dive deep into the benefits of coconut oil and saturated fat while busting cholesterol and other myths in my book Eat Fat, Get Thin.

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Mark Hyman, M.D.
Mark Hyman, M.D.

Dr. Mark Hyman is a practicing family physician and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in the field of Functional Medicine. He is the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, the Head of Strategy and Innovation of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine, a 13-time New York Times best-selling author, and Board President for Clinical Affairs for The Institute for Functional Medicine. He is the host of one of the leading health podcasts, The Doctor’s Farmacy. Dr. Hyman is a regular medical contributor on several television shows and networks, including CBS This Morning, Today, Good Morning America, The View, and CNN. He is also an advisor and guest co-host on The Dr. Oz Show.

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