There’s been a lot of controversy about coconut oil and heart health. Some sources claim that coconut oil raises cholesterol levels and that you should avoid consuming it if you want to protect your heart. Others cite studies showing that coconut oil may lower LDL cholesterol and support heart health. What’s the truth? Read on as we explore the latest research.
Disclaimer: This post is for informational purposes only. Please consult your doctor about your health-related concerns and medications before taking any supplements or making drastic changes to your diet and lifestyle.
Effects of Coconut Oil on Heart Health & Cholesterol Infographic
2023 Research Says Coconut Oil Is Good for Your Heart
Coconut oil contains beneficial medium-chain fatty acids
In 2023, scientists Monica Perna and Susan Hewlings published a paper that debunks the myth that saturated fats in coconut oil are bad for your heart (Perna & Hewlings, 2023).
The paper, titled "Saturated Fatty Acid Chain Length and Risk of Cardiovascular Disease: A Systematic Review", was published in the Journal Nutrients. It included five prospective cohort studies that measured saturated fatty acid chain length intake based on diet questionnaires.
The authors discovered that short- and medium-chain saturated fatty acids like those in coconut were beneficial or neutral for heart health. On the other hand, long-chain saturated fatty acid intake was linked with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Not all saturated fats are the same
The main takeaway from the new systematic review is that we need to look at the length of fatty acids and their impact on health instead of lumping all saturated fats together. This may have implications for dietary guidelines, which still don’t take into account the differences among various saturated fats.
Yet, it’s a fact that not all saturated fats are the same—just as not all unsaturated fats are the same.
For example, we now know omega-3 fatty acids are more beneficial for heart health than omega-6 fatty acids. Yet both are unsaturated fats. A step further is to look at the types of omega-3s: EPAs support heart health while DHA is more important for brain health. Their combined intake offers the greatest heart protective effect (Djuricic & Calder, 2021).
This is exactly what we should be doing with unsaturated fats: examining their subtypes and synergistic effects on health.
The types and sources of different saturated fats include (Perna & Hewlings, 2023):
- Short-chain fatty acids (SCFA): likely beneficial, produced in the colon by fermenting high-fiber foods
- Medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs): likely beneficial, include palm kernel oil, coconut oil, and dairy
- Long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs): possibly harmful, include dairy, beef, palm oil, and lard
Coconut oil contains healthy saturated fats: medium-chain fatty acids. Medium-chain fatty acids seem to have a beneficial or neutral effect on heart health, based on 2023 research.
Coconut oil contains many other beneficial nutrients
Susan Hewlings, co-author of the paper, says “Coconut contains saturated fat, but it's a medium-chain fatty acid and contains other many beneficial nutrients and therefore should not be lumped with all saturated fats."
This brings us to the second point: it’s not just about how much fats a food contains but what nutrients and beneficial compounds it boasts alongside fats.
In fact, new research highlights that we shouldn’t be looking at any nutrient in isolation. The best heart-healthy diet should emphasize whole foods and nutrient-dense natural foods. When it comes to fats, dietary fat quality is more important than total dietary fat intake (Guasch-Ferré et al., 2015).
Virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil is an overall healthy food. Aside from medium-chain fatty acids, it’s high in vitamin E, phospholipids, and antioxidant polyphenols. Coconut oil is also anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial. In moderation, it’s a great addition to a heart-healthy diet (Wallance, 2015;)
In contrast to current guidelines, new research also questions the recommendation to reduce saturated fats. A recent review of nearly 20 papers revealed there’s a lack of rigorous evidence to support continued recommendations either to limit saturated fats or to replace them with polyunsaturated fatty acids (Astrup et al., 2021).
Just counting saturated fat fails to see the bigger picture: what’s the overall dietary pattern of this person? Are they getting enough nutrients? What’s their food matrix like? (Astrup et al., 2021).
Read more about what a heart-healthy diet should actually look like based on the latest research in nutrition here.
Virgin coconut oil contains many other beneficial nutrients and antioxidants aside from fats. It’s a good addition to a heart-healthy diet that emphasizes nutrient-dense, whole foods.
Does coconut oil raise cholesterol?
A recent meta-analysis of 12 studies concluded that coconut milk and coconut oil have a net beneficial effect on the lipid profile and heart disease risk (Teng et al., 2020).
Compared to animal or plant oils, coconut oil had the strongest effect on increasing HDL cholesterol. HDL is commonly called the “good” cholesterol.
Coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol more than plant oils but less than animal fats. Overall, however, its overall effect on LDL cholesterol was so slight that it was not considered significant (average increase of 0.23 mg/dL).
However, when scientists looked at different types of coconut oil, they saw that refined coconut oil was responsible for the small rise in LDL. Extra-virgin and virgin coconut oil didn’t raise LDL. In fact, the net effect of virgin coconut oil tended toward lowering LDL cholesterol (average drop of 0.08 mg/dL).
Unlike refined coconut oil, virgin coconut oil also didn’t raise triglyceride levels.
Virgin coconut oil is not bad for cholesterol. On the contrary, it seems to help support healthy HDL, LDL, and triglyceride levels. Refined coconut oil, however, may slightly raise LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
The Bottom Line: Is Coconut Oil Heart-Healthy?
The verdict is that virgin coconut oil is heart-healthy.
Although coconut oil packs medium-chain fatty acids that are classified as saturated fats, it’s not harmful.
New research published in 2023 reveals that the medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut oil have a neutral to beneficial effect on heart health.
Coconut oil also helps support healthy lipid levels. Virgin coconut oil seems to raise the “good” HDL cholesterol without increasing LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.
More research is needed, but it’s safe to say that virgin coconut oil is a great addition to any healthy diet.
If you want to improve your heart health, don’t shy away from coconut oil—just make sure you’re getting cold-pressed, virgin coconut oil. Refined coconut oil does not offer the same heart-healthy benefits and is lower in many beneficial active compounds.
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Ana Aleksic, MSc Pharm
Ana is an integrative pharmacist and scientist with many years of medical writing, clinical research, and health advising experience. She loves communicating science and empowering people to achieve their optimal health. Ana has edited 800+ and written 150+ posts, some of which reached over 1 million people. Her specialties are natural remedies, women’s health, and mental health. She is also a birth doula and a strong advocate of bridging scientific knowledge with holistic medicine.