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Cost-benefit analysis: coconut oil

The ingredient: coconut oil 

The costs:

Coconut oil is literally all fat, and 80 to 90 percent of that fat is saturated. That’s the bad kind that can raise your LDL cholesterol, causing plaque buildup in your arteries and increasing your risk of cardiovascular disease, explains Brian St. Pierre, RD, director of performance nutrition for Precision Nutrition in Scarborough, Maine.

“You want to get a mix of saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats,” St. Pierre says. But if most of your fat intake comes from coconut oil, that likely means you’re missing out on the heart-healthy monounsaturated fats found in options like extra-virgin olive oil.

Many coconut oils on the market are highly filtered and refined in high heat, processes that can add trans fats to the mix. “To ensure it's as close to its natural state as possible, buy an extra-virgin or unrefined coconut oil sold in its solid state,” says Liz Shaw, MD, a registered dietician based in San Diego.

People often talk about the fact that coconut oil has a higher smoke point than others, meaning you can heat it to a higher temperature before it burns and produces free radicals. But that’s only true of refined (read: highly processed) options, which have a threshold of 450 degrees F.

For the types Shaw recommends, the tipping point is a much lower 350 degrees F. If you’re cooking or baking at higher temps, you’re better off using other options like canola or avocado oil, with smoke points of 400 and 480 degrees F, respectively.

The benefits:

Coconut oil is a natural, sustainable addition to your hair and skincare routines.

Ashley Hudson, senior regional manager of The Spa in New York City, suggests using extra-virgin coconut oil as an overnight hair mask to moisturize dry, brittle strands. Comb it through damp hair, put a cap on, then shampoo and condition as you normally would the next morning, she says. If you suffer from scalp dryness, massage it onto your head in the shower for similar benefits.

The ingredient also works as a makeup remover (apply it onto your skin in circles, then rinse before using your cleanser) and moisturizer for both body and face, Hudson says. With antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral properties, it’s even a good option for people with acne-prone skin.

Because of those characteristics, unrefined coconut oil is a favorite for oil pulling, a practice that may improve oral hygiene and lessen congestion.

The final analysis:

“Depending on the studies you’re referencing, you’ll find one touting coconut oil’s benefits and another ripping them apart,” says Shaw. Know this: Many of the health claims about the ingredient, such as weight loss and reduced hunger levels, are not well supported by science. Oils high in mono- and polyunsaturated fats, like canola and olive, are better for you. 

If you do eat coconut oil, choose the unrefined, extra-virgin kind. “No more than ten percent of your calories should come from saturated fat,” St. Pierre says, so stick to two tablespoons or less per day.

The bottom line: It’s almost always smarter to put coconut oil on your body rather than in it.

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