Coconut Oil, What’s all the Excitement?

Lately, coconut oil has been promoted to solve aches and pains. This summary of fats and oils shows how coconut oil fits in to address the risk of heart disease.
Coconut Oil, What’s all the Excitement? - Articles

Updated: October 19, 2017

Coconut Oil, What’s all the Excitement?

Companies often promote their products as the end all to all of our aches and pains. Coconut oil still seems to be popular as the next best thing to sliced bread in mainstream media. To help understand why long-term scientific studies have not supported the claims, here is a brief over view of the chemical structure of fats and oils. We will include how they increase or decrease our risks of heart disease, and where coconut oil fits in.

First let’s review fats and oils. There are three types of fatty acids found in fats and oils: saturated, monounsaturated, polyunsaturated. Fats and oils are actually a mixture of these three types. A polyunsaturated fat is one where most of the fatty acids in that fat are polyunsaturated. However, there are still some monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids in it as well. Examples of saturated are butter, beef fat, like what is in ground beef, chicken fat, hydrogenated shortening, and coconut oil. Monounsaturated are olive, canola and peanut oils. Polyunsaturated are safflower, sunflower, corn, and soybean.

Sometimes the physical state of a fat can help you determine the main type of fatty acid contained in it. Most monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are generally liquid at room temperature. Hence vegetable oils are liquids of mostly “unsaturated” fatty acids. Most fats with a large proportion of saturated fatty acids are hard at room temperature. The fat in meats, shortening, butter, and some margarine contains a larger amount of saturated fatty acids so they are solid at room temperature.

The American Heart Association recently released a report that reinforces what research has told us all along. Saturated fats raise the “bad cholesterol,” LDL or low-density lipoprotein which may lead to atherosclerosis (heart attacks and strokes). Replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat is also the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015. Less than 10% of calories should be from saturated fat. The American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology guidelines go on to state the need to decrease the amount of saturated fat to 5% to 6% of total daily calories for folks with elevated LDL cholesterol.

Here is an easy way to monitor the amount of saturated fat you eat in a day. If you eat on average 2000 calories, and if you do not have elevated LDL, you could safely eat 200 calories (22 grams) from saturated fat per day. That is 10% of 2000 calories. It is important to use the food label to determine the amount of saturated fat found in the food that you eat. If you have elevated cholesterol, then the amount of calories reduces to 100 calories from saturated fat or 5% of 2000 calories (11 grams).

One tablespoon of extra virgin coconut oil has 130 calories, including 117 calories from saturated fat. One tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil has 120 calories, with only 18 calories from saturated fat. By replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat, the number of calories from saturated fat greatly reduces.

Coconut milk, a popular ingredient in smoothie, drinks and juicing follows suit with coconut oi. All of the fat is saturated. Four and one-half tablespoons (65 ml) contains 130 calories including 120 calories from saturated fat. Sixteen ounces (480 ml) of coconut water, however, contains no fat and 101 calories.

Be a food label reader. Add up the number of calories you eat in one day from saturated fat. See if you can lower that number to lower your LDLs and your risk for atherosclerosis.


  • “Fact about Coconut Oil”, The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 2013.
  • Frank M. Sacks, Alice H. Lichtentein, Jason H.Y. Wu, Lawrence J. Appel, Mark A. Creager, Penny M. Kri-Etherton, Michael Miller, Eric B. Rimm, Lawrence L. Rudel, Jennifer G. Robinson, Neil J. Stone, Linda V. Van Horn, “Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease A presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association” June 2017.
  • USDA Agricultural Research Service USDA Branded Food Products Database, August 2017

Prepared by Mary R. Ehret, M.S.,R.D.,L.D.N.


Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP) PA Nutrition Education TRACKS (SNAP-Ed)

More by Mary Reistetter Ehret, M.S.,R.D.,L.D.N.