August 19th, 2011
08:40 AM ET

How good is coconut oil for you?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Friday, it's Dr. Melina Jampolis, a physician nutrition specialist.

Question asked by Ashutosh of Minneapolis

How good is coconut oil for you? Nowadays in gym and in vitamin shops, they mention to have some coconut oil in our diet. Is it supposed to be good for you? If yes, in what ways, and what are some good tips to use it in our diet?

Expert answer

Hi, Ashutosh. This is a great question that I get asked about frequently as it seems as if a lot of personal trainers, nutritionists and alternative health practitioners are recommending coconut oil to their clients, and this popularity has spread to mainstream stores and health clubs.

Coconut oil is high in saturated fat (about 92% compared with 64% in butter), but some of the fat comes from shorter length chains of carbon known as medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, which I believe is why it has gained popularity in the weight loss/nutrition field.

MCTs are quickly metabolized by the liver (unlike longer chain fats, which undergo a more prolonged course through the body) so they are less likely to be stored as body fat.

If you eat too many calories, however, the extra (non-MCT) calories will be stored as body fat so you won't necessarily lose weight adding these to your diet.

According to Dr. Barry Sears, who is an expert in lipids (fats), holds a doctorate in biochemistry and does extensive research in the field, coconut oil does have some advantages over other types of saturated fat in that it is rich in tocotrienols (vitamin E, an antioxidant), and because of the high amounts of saturated fat, it is stable for cooking. (Note that the tocotrienols degrade during cooking so this benefit is lost if you use coconut oil for cooking.)

In addition, it is low in omega-6 fatty acids (less than 2%), which reduces the formation of arachidonic acid, a pro-inflammatory compound. Unfortunately, the saturated fats can increase inflammation so this benefit may be offset somewhat.

Research on coconut oil is still limited, but one small study published in the journal Lipids found that in women with too much belly fat (waist size larger than 35 inches), taking coconut oil while following a low-calorie diet and walking almost an hour a day raised good cholesterol, or HDL, and lowered belly fat more than a diet including soybean oil. (The soybean oil diet actually increased bad cholesterol and lowered good cholesterol.)

Another larger study of Filipino women published this year showed an association between coconut oil intake and higher levels of good cholesterol and no significant association with bad cholesterol.

All in all, coconut oil may not be as unhealthy as many animal-derived saturated fats (butter, meat), but until more research is done, especially looking at the impact on heart disease risk, it is better to limit your intake to less than 10% of total calories per day and make sure that it replaces less healthy foods such as refined carbohydrates, sugar and high fat animal proteins instead of adding to them.

And I agree with Sears that for controlling inflammation and obtaining optimal health, extra virgin olive oil is unquestionably your best choice.

Got a question for our experts? Submit it here and make sure to follow Dr. Melina Jampolis on Twitter.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.