What’s all the hype about coconut oil? Is it good or is it bad? The American Heart Association recently put out a statement on saturated fats, including coconut oil. You may have been confused as you read it. You also may have been alarmed as you read a USA Today article that further vilified coconut oil.

A case for (good) fat

I have never been immune to health fads like the coconut oil craze.In my teens and through college, I would eat fat-free candy and cookies with abandon during the low-fat craze.As a young doctor and mom, and even as I embraced a whole-foods, plant-rich diet, I still shied away from fat.It wasn’t until I began adopting holistic health practices and immersed myself in the study of integrative medicine that I finally started adding more fat (including saturated fat) to my diet.

At that point in my life, despite an aggressive exercise routine, I carried a few extra pounds and the scale would never quite budge. After introducing healthy fats into my diet, I was shocked to find that not only did those stubborn pounds disappear, but my energy skyrocketed, too! The fat supporters of the world were clearly onto something.

Coconut oil – a fad or fantastic?

In the case of coconut oil, we have been inundated for years with information that coconut oil is a magic superfood.We are told to lather it on our bodies, drink it in our coffee, cook and bake with it.But if you go to your traditional medical doctor, many will tell you to stay away from saturated fats like coconut oil to lower your risk of heart disease and elevated cholesterol.There is a definite line in the sand.

With so much controversy, it was no surprise to hear the latest statement from the American Heart Association.Essentially, its position was: “We conclude strongly that lowering intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of CVD (cardiovascular disease).”In terms of coconut oil, a saturated fat, that means kissing it good-bye from your healthy diet. So now what do we do?

The science behind fat

Let’s start with some facts about fat.Fat is essential in our diet. It provides energy, helps us absorb critical vitamins from our food, is critical to cell structure, important for brain and nervous system health, and is a building block of hormones, to name a few of its important roles.

Fats come in many forms.There are saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and trans fats.The oils and fats we use in our diet contain a combination of these.

Foods high in saturated fat

Food high in monounsaturated Fat

Food high in Polyunsaturated Fat

Food high in Trans Fats

(Stay Away)

Coconut oil

Olive Oil

Fatty Fish


Fatty cuts of meat (beef, chicken, pork)

High oleic forms of safflower and sunflower

Vegetable oils (corn, safflower, soy)

Deep frying oils

Palm kernel oil


Walnuts, sunflower seeds

Commercial baked goods and snacks

Butter, lard, cream

Oils from almonds, cashews, peanuts

Flax seeds or Flax Oil


Beef tallow

Coconut oil has a high percentage of saturated fat, which is ultimately what is in question. While the saturated fat content of coconut oil is coming under scrutiny, the wellness world encourages its consumption due to its high content of medium-chain triglycerides, which are claimed to boost metabolism and aid in fat loss, and lauric acid, which has antimicrobial properties.

The medical community, on the other hand, links saturated fat to increased bad cholesterol. But if you look at the studies with a fine-toothed comb (Dr. Mark Hyman, a functional medicine expert and best-selling author, does a nice job in his recent blog post), we don’t quite have all the answers when it comes to cholesterol.As an integrative physician, here’s how I balance the conflicting statements and evidence.

Dr. Lynn Wagner’s Fat Rules:

  • Stay away from low-fat diets. These historically tend to increase a person’s consumption of processed or sugary foods and do NOT improve health.
  • Eat fat in moderation, with each meal of the day.
  • Enjoy naturally occurring forms of fat daily.
    • Nuts – ¼ to ½ cup daily. Raw or dry roasted nuts are your best options.
    • Avocados – YES! ¼ to ½ of an avocado three to four days per week.
    • Wild fish* – Aim for once per week; twice would be perfect.
    • Beef and other meats with fat regularly (always grass-fed* or wild and preferably organic).
    • Eggs – opt for organic and/or free-range eggs or buy from a local farmer.
  • Enjoy olive oil** regularly (great for low-heat frying, cooking or fresh on salads).
  • Use coconut oil in moderation for baking or high-heat frying.
  • Enjoy butter or ghee (always organic) as a less frequent treat.
  • Utilize other oils like avocado oil, sunflower oil and sesame oil as needed for specific recipes.

* These options may contain a higher percentage of omega-3 fatty acids, which are anti-inflammatory and promote health.

** Opt for virgin, expeller or cold-pressed organic oil. Apply these rules to most oils you purchase.

What to do now

When it comes to you and fat, do some research and find a practitioner versed in nutrition and wellness who can deliver more personalized medicine.If you DO choose to eat more foods high in saturated fat, like coconut oil, make sure to monitor your health.A good doctor can walk with you through this process, test your blood and even your genes, evaluate your gut health, consider your family history and focus on your lifestyle beyond saturated fat!Arm yourself with information to make important health decisions.

Key takeaways:

  • In the end, don’t lose sight of the big picture!As food writer Michael Pollan so eloquently states, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”He doesn’t say “Eat coconut oil.”
  • Focus on what we know for sure ­– a whole-foods, plant-based diet low in sugar and processed foods leads to optimum health.I don’t believe coconut oil will save your life, but I do believe it is a healthy fat to consume in moderation.When enjoyed in the context of an otherwise healthy, whole-foods, plant-based diet, you likely will be able to enjoy this saturated fat in moderation.

If you want to learn more about how to fuel your body with food, sign up for Dr. Wagner’s Free Resource Library. You’ll get tons of tips, recipes, and you’ll also be the first to know when the next Food for Fuel program is in session!

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