Answer:

Lowering intake of saturated fats (and oils, which are fats) in your diet and replacing them with unsaturated fats, particularly polyunsaturated fats, can reduce cardiovascular disease by about 30%, similar to the reduction achieved by statin treatment, according to the American Heart Association (AHA) (Sacks, Circulation 2017). This will lower LDL ("bad") cholesterol.

Ideally, this should be done as part of an overall healthful dietary pattern such as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or Mediterranean diet. Note, however, that reducing saturated fats in the diet only to replace them with carbohydrates from refined grains (as opposed to whole grains) and added sugars does not prevent coronary heart disease. 

Here are the foods high in saturated fat that the AHA recommends reducing in the diet, followed by foods containing primarily unsaturated fats which should replace foods in the first list in order to lower LDL cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease: 

Sources of saturated fat (to be decreased in the diet): 
The main sources of saturated fats in the diet are dairy fat (butter), lard (pork), beef tallow, palm kernel oil, and, yes, coconut oil. In fact, 82% of coconut and palm kernel oil is saturated fat. The AHA advises against use of coconut oil because it has been found to increase LDL ("bad") cholesterol with no favorable offsetting effects. (Note: The AHA acknowledges that coconut oil can increase HDL ("good") cholesterol, but changing HDL "... can no longer be linked to changes in CVD [cardiovascular disease], and therefore, the LDL cholesterol-raising effect should be considered on its own.")  Hence the AHA recommends substituting unsaturated fats for coconut oil and other sources of saturated fats. Like all fats, coconut oil is a source of energy and it has been argued that, because a high proportion of its saturated fat is the medium-chain variety, it may provide energy faster that other fats. While that may be true, it will increase LDL cholesterol relative to oils higher in unsaturated fats. [Update: A study in England found that extra virgin coconut oil was, surprisingly, no different in its effect on LDL levels than extra virgin olive oil (discussed below) in healthy, middle-aged adults who added 50 grams (1/4 cup) of either oil per day to their diets for four weeks — although both were better than adding an equal amount of unsalted butter. No comparison was made to adding a mainly polyunsaturated oil (Khaw, BMJ 2018).]

Sources of unsaturated fats (to replace foods above):
Canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, and walnuts, are foods containing mainly unsaturated fats which are predominantly polyunsaturated. Olive oil (see our Review), avocados, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios, and pecans also contain mainly unsaturated fats, but these are predominantly as monounsaturated fat, which, according to the AHA, is better than saturated fat and almost as good as polyunsaturated fat, although replacing monounsaturated fat with polyunsaturated fat may further lower LDL cholesterol. Safflower and sunflower oils fall somewhere between the two groups because although both are very low in saturated fat, the most commonly available products on the market are higher in monounsaturated fat (as oleic acid — the same found in olive oil) than older varieties of these oils which were higher in polyunsaturated fat (as linoleic acid).  

Keep in mind that these sources of unsaturated fat will help your cardiovascular system if they are replacing saturated fat but not if you are just adding them to your existing diet. It takes about 2 years to achieve 60-70% of the full cardiovascular beneficial effects of these changes to your diet (Sacks, Circulation 2017).

Of course, reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease is not the only potential benefit of oils. Olive oil, particularly extra virgin olive oil, contains polyphenols and may improve blood sugar control and even reduce the risk of breast and colorectal cancers.

Other fats/oils:
The omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA found in fish oil may help treat inflammatory conditions, but they don't reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease when taken as a supplement -- although eating non-fried fish twice a week, instead of other meats, can, and high-dose, highly concentrated EPA and DHA can lower elevated triglycerides although it has not been directly proven to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.  

Alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) in flaxseed oil does not reduce the overall risk of cardiovascular disease when taken as a supplement, but a diet rich in ALA appears to reduce the risk of high blood pressure and has been associated with a lower risk of fatal heart attacks.  

Also see ConsumerLab.com's Reviews of Cholesterol-Lowering Supplements and Red Yeast Rice Supplements.

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3 Comments

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Andrian16642
March 28, 2018

My lates LDL reading despite being almost vegan for a year was 163. I exercise and am not overweight. I use coconut oil as a moisturizer. I have wondered whether it is possible that I am actually absorbing enough of the oil through my skin to raise my LDL. Given that your latest post says ingesting 1/4 cup a day has the same effect as olive oil, I would think not. I only use about 1/2 tablespoon on my skin a day.

By the way, my triglycerides are in a healthy range. The only study I found though a google search was one in which babies were massaged with a vegetable oil (I forget which one), and their blood levels showed an increase in fat compared to babes that were massaged without the oil. Any thoughts?

ConsumerLab.com
April 19, 2018

Hi Andrian - You may be referring to this study in newborns in an intensive care unit, which did find blood levels of total saturated fats and triglycerides to increase in those massaged with coconut oil https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16269830. However, there do not appear to be any similar studies conducted in adults.

harold jitschak15242
July 5, 2017

?Dear Consumer Lab,
With all my high appreciation for your articles and huge knowledge-base, I was a bit surprised to see your answer on good oils.
Good fats/oils:Quote:........... The best sources of unsaturated fats are canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, and walnuts, because their fats are predominantly polyunsaturated fats etc...... The next best choices are olive oil (see our Review)

To be fair I must say that maybe your answer was just a VERY LIMITED answer on unsaturated oils and cholesterol values, WITHOUT any further relevance to health in general.
I would like to mention the [1978 !] book of Rudolf Ballentine: Diet and Nutrition which was/is an serious eye opener about oils/fats.....maybe one of the firsts books written in easy to understand language for the public and doctors with excellent references, with highly knowledgeable material and partially also about traditional foods.
It is clear to me -and there are plenty of articles published on top of the traditional use- that olive oil and sesame oil[maybe also the hard to get macadamia oil] belong to the very few highly beneficial food oils in all respects. I have advised since 1980 to all my patients to use good quality of these oils and to avoid other oils and certainly margarine since 1980, long before mainstream medicine start talking about tans-fats and rapid of oxidation of commercial oils etc., thanks to Dr.Ballentine.
On what base do you recommend the oils in your answer[such as corn canola oil?] Are you willing to look into this again? Nutrition studies/reading have been my main emphasis since 1980.
Thanks for your considerations.?

kirstin16596
March 17, 2018

Excellent post, thank you!

ConsumerLab.com
June 21, 2017

Many comments were received from readers about the posting above, most of which were critical of the American Heart Association recommendations. Some were also critical of ConsumerLab.com for publishing this information and for how it was presented. Several comments expressed doubt that 1) canola oil, corn oil, and soybean oil could be considered "good" if they contain genetically-modified organisms (GMO) and 2) that coconut oil could be considered "bad." It is important to note that the classification of good and bad which we originally used was based solely on the effects of these food sources on LDL "bad" cholesterol and the risk of cardiovascular disease. We have clarified this by removing the "good" and "bad" designations and more appropriately categorizing them as "Sources of saturated fat" and "Sources of unsaturated fat."

We believe the AHA recommendations with regard to reducing LDL cholesterol and cardiovascular disease are scientifically sound and that readers with elevated LDL cholesterol can benefit from the substitutions recommended. We suggest that anyone interested in understanding the scientific basis of the AHA advisory, which is freely available, should read it, particularly the discussion of coconut oil on page e13. You can also read a news release from the AHA about the advisory at http://newsroom.heart.org/news/replacing-saturated-fat-with-healthier-fat-may-lower-cholesterol-as-well-as-drugs-in-context-of-a-healthy-diet.

William16558
March 11, 2018

Please see the recent study of olive oil described at Pritikin.com ("The Truth About Olive Oil.") The point made by the study was that olive oil is not "healthy" -- it's just less unhealthy than the saturated-fat oils it might replace. Apparently what's healthy is no oils.

Dan16561
March 11, 2018

LDL is raised but is it the large particle LDL or the small particle?

ConsumerLab.com
March 12, 2018

... just to clarify, no oils would not be advisable as our bodies need fats.

ConsumerLab.com
April 19, 2018

Hi Dan - The study did not look at LDL particle size.

Tyler17108
August 27, 2018

The devil is in the details.

William17136
September 3, 2018

We don't have to eat oils to get healthy fats.There are fats in whole plant foods, such as nuts and avocados.

Jeffrey20883
September 6, 2020

Very useful comments. We all love your work. And you have highly educated consumers that subscribe. Hence you are seeing hints towards preparing for more comprehensive
testing.

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