Coconut oil isn’t healthy — never was and never will be. That headline practically broke the internet last month, after the American Heart Association called out coconut oil specifically as a troubling source of saturated fat. In its updated advisory, AHA noted that coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat (by comparison, canola oil is just 7 percent) and that it elevates LDL cholesterol as much as butter or beef fat.
The announcement caused an uproar because, despite coconut oil’s sky-high saturated fat content, it has gotten a good-for-you rap in recent years. Paleo and Bulletproof diet devotees are all about it — and they’re not all wrong about its beneficial qualities.
First off, coconut oil is natural and plant-based, appealing attributes if you’re trying to eat a less-processed diet. Secondly, some of the fatty acids in this oil are medium-chain triglycerides, thought to elevate HDL cholesterol (the good kind), important for staving off heart disease. MCTs may also rev metabolism, theoretically leading to weight loss.
However, the studies of the early 2000s that brought the benefits of MCTs to light have been wildly misinterpreted and used to trumpet coconut oil as a superfood. Those researchers used a specially designed 100 percent MCT oil — not coconut oil, which has a much lower percentage of MCTs. As TIME reported, they do not think coconut oil belongs in the pantheon of healthy foods.
Many doctors and nutritionists agree. “AHA got this right,” says Dr. Dennis Goodman, a board-certified cardiologist and lipidologist and director of integrative medicine at New York University. “Yes, there are good-for-you things in coconut oil, but they’re not enough to make it healthy. AHA is just now highlighting the fact that coconut oil has a very high saturated fat content, and we know saturated fats raise LDL cholesterol, which isn’t good for your heart. Even though coconut oil has been shown to increase HDL cholesterol, that’s not going to stop LDL cholesterol from going up.”
Goodman is actually a big proponent of dietary fat, even some saturated sources like grass-fed beef. He says 5 to 10 percent of your diet should, in fact, be fat. “Fats are very important for the body—for making hormones, which make cells,” he says. “If you consume no fat, you’ll be at risk for all sorts of health issues. But if you have a choice, you are much better off with unsaturated fats because they don’t raise LDL.” He suggests nuts, avocados, and wild-caught salmon as solid sources of unsaturated fats.
Still, some experts believe AHA has gone overboard in vilifying saturated fat. “The demonization of both saturated fat and sugar was dependent on the opinions of a few, and both of these recommendations misrepresented the data,” says Dr. James DiNicolantonio, cardiovascular researcher at Saint Luke's Mid America Heart Institute in Kansas City, Missouri, and author of The Salt Fix. “In other words, there was never proof that cutting saturated fat or salt in the diet would reduce cardiovascular events. That said, it's still important to eat an overall well-balanced diet focused on whole foods, and I do think overconsuming foods high in saturated fat can negatively impact health.”
DiNicolantonio does not recommend eating coconut oil, for the same reasons Goodman gives, but he’s worried about what we’re choosing instead, namely omega-6-rich seed oils like canola. “As I’ve written about in BMJ, there seems to be harm — an increase in cardiovascular and all-cause mortality — if industrial omega-6 seed oils replace saturated fat,” he says. “So why AHA would focus on demonizing saturated fat and not omega-6 seeds oils makes little sense to me.”
It’s also important to view saturated fat within the context of the overall diet, DiNicolantonio believes, because what you eat along with saturated fat may matter. “The literature suggests that saturated fat is only particularly harmful if consumed on top of a diet high in refined carbohydrates,” he says. “This doesn't mean you can cut the refined carbs and eat as many high-saturated-fat foods as you want. But it also means you shouldn't fear these types of foods, especially if they are found as close to nature as possible, from pastured and organic sources.”