A recent advisory from the American Heart Association caused a stir online when it warned against the use of coconut oil. The report claimed that due to its high saturated fat content, coconut oil could increase LDL cholesterol as much as butter or beef, thereby increasing the risk of heart disease.

While it’s true that studies have shown coconut oil to increase cholesterol, claiming that coconut oil increases the risk of heart disease may be an oversimplification. Science’s understanding of cholesterol is continually evolving. Cholesterol is necessary for proper brain function, and recent research shows that high-cholesterol foods are not as bad for us as we have been led to believe.

Coconut oil and cholesterol

Numerous studies have shown that the saturated fat and medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil can promote positive health changes. Eating the right kind of saturated fats (such as coconut oil and grass-fed beef) can boost the body’s HDL cholesterol production, which may help improve neurological health. Coconut oil may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, guard against depression, increase metabolism, and boost weight loss.

In seven out of ten trials cited by the AHA, coconut oil increased LDL cholesterol. But it turns out that cholesterol levels may not be the best way to evaluate the risk of heart disease. According to integrative physician Dr. Frank Lipman, the type of LDL particles matter, and the ones you get from coconut oil aren’t the ones responsible for heart disease. Low levels of LDL also aren’t necessarily an indicator of good health. A study of more than 12,000 people found that low cholesterol levels were associated with a higher risk of death from stroke, heart disease, and cancer, whereas high cholesterol was not actually associated with a higher rate of mortality.

Some health professionals think we’re placing too much emphasis on cholesterol, when the real cause of heart disease may be inflammation.

Genetics also play a role in how we respond to different foods, and some people may be more or less sensitive to dietary fat. Identifying your individual genetically appropriate diet can help you determine how much fat is safe to include in your diet.

The risks of vegetable oils

Also problematic is the AHA’s recommendation to replace saturated fats with oils derived from corn and soy. A 2016 review study showed what happens when people replace saturated fats with vegetable oils: It lowered cholesterol but did not decrease the risk of heart disease, and did not translate to a lower risk of death. Study authors stated that the benefits of replacing saturated fats with vegetable oils have been overestimated. Corn, soy, and other vegetable oils are high in omega-6 acids, which are already high in the standard American diet. An imbalance of essential fatty acids (too much omega-6 and not enough omega-3) also contributes to inflammation and heart disease.

More recent research indicates that the real culprits behind heart disease are simple carbs and sugar, which reduce HDL levels and contribute to insulin resistance. One of the best ways to reduce the risk of heart disease is to limit or eliminate the consumption of simple carbohydrates, processed foods, and sugar. Eat foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fish and walnuts, and eat a variety of fresh, whole foods such as berries, nuts, and olive oil.

Periodic fasting or repeated use of a fasting mimicking diet have also been shown to reduce risk factors associated with heart disease, including C-reactive protein, a marker for inflammation.