- Eating more plant-based food can lead to a healthier diet, but too much processed food can backfire.
- A cardiologist said plant-based processed foods often contains coconut oil that can raise cholesterol levels.
- Coconut oil is higher in saturated fat than butter, which can make it a less healthy choice for your heart.
Seemingly-healthy plant-based foods can actually raise your cholesterol levels, thanks to a surprising source of saturated fat, according to a cardiologist.
Dr. Harmony Reynolds, a cardiologist at NYU Langone, said she noticed a pattern with her patients who ingested more coconut oil, a common ingredient in vegan processed food.
“I learned to ask patients about this because I was seeing multiple patients whose LDL cholesterol was going up because they introduced coconut oil-containing foods,” she told Insider.
Reynolds said coconut oil is among foods she almost never eats as a cardiologist, since it’s high in a type of fat called saturated fat that can increase your levels of LDL cholesterol. Sometimes called “bad” cholesterol, too much LDL cholesterol is linked to increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Checking labels can help you be aware of how much coconut oil you might be consuming. You should balance your saturated fat intake, keeping it to less than 6% of your total calories, according to American Heart Association guidelines.
Coconut oil can show up in unexpected places, like vegan baked goods, dairy substitutes, and frozen meals
Coconut oil is often used as a butter substitute in vegan baking and cooking, and is popular because it provides a fat source that’s solid at room temperature to help give foods the right texture.
It shows up in a huge range of vegan products from cookies and pastries, to dairy-free versions of cheese, ice cream, or coffee creamer, and even in pre-made meals like frozen burrito bowls or stir-fry kits.
But it’s a misconception that coconut oil is a healthier alternative to butter or seed oils like canola, since it contains more saturated fat than butter. It’s also high in calories, which can be a disadvantage if you’re trying to watch your weight — one tablespoon adds about 120 calories.
One reason coconut oil is sometimes considered healthy is that it’s high in a type of fatty acids called medium-chain triglycerides, which some evidence suggests can be absorbed more quickly than other fat sources, potentially boosting weight loss, energy, and brain health, although more research is needed.
Overall, it should be used sparingly in your diet, if at all, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Research suggests olive oil is a healthier choice, with some evidence is can help reduce the risk of heart disease.
Many of the vegan foods containing coconut oil are also ultra-processed, which means that they contain additives like salt, sugar, and fat, and often have fewer nutrients and fiber. Research suggests eating too much processed food can increase the risk of illnesses like heart disease and cancer.
While no single food can make or break your health, dietitians recommend limiting processed foods, even if they’re plant-based.
“There’s a lot more great choices out there right now, but you can be a vegan on a soda and potato chips diet,” registered dietitian nutritionist Wendy Bazilian previously told Insider. “That’s vegan, and it could even have a beautiful splashy label that says it, but you will be at risk for some nutritional deficits by that.”
Bazilian and other dietitians recommend following a plant-based diet rich in whole foods like fruit, veggies, grains, beans, nuts, and seeds.
Evidence suggests the benefits of a healthy plant-based diet include adding years to your life, reducing risk of chronic illnesses, and improving mood and energy.