is coconut oil healthy?

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Is coconut oil healthy? Should I put coconut oil in my coffee? What’s the deal with coconut oil anyways???

is coconut oil healthy? // www.heynutritionlady.com

I’ve been fielding questions about coconut oil for a long time. And rightly so, it’s confusing! Coconut oil was totally fat-shamed in the 90’s for being super high in saturated fat – about 82% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated. Over the last several years, however, coconut oil broke free from the nutritional naughty corner and catapulted to celebrity super-food status with people baking with it, making “healthy” treats with it, straight up eating spoonfuls of the stuff, and even stirring it into coffee.

But, when things seem too good to be true they usually are. Last month, the American Heart Association released an advisory on dietary fats and cardiovascular disease, which, among other things, called out coconut oil as being unhealthy and specifically advised against its use.

In the weeks since this review paper was published the internet has been in an uproar, mostly in the natural health community. I wanted to better understand what all of the hubbub was about before I weighed in, so I downloaded the full review and spent some time sifting through the document. Here is the statement that’s causing all the fuss:

 Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.

Let’s back up a bit.

Like I said, coconut oil was considered unhealthy due to its saturated fat content. Saturated fat – a fat in which all of the carbons in its chain have a hydrogen atom attached (therefore being saturated with hydrogen) have long been associated with poor cardiovascular health. A very, very simplified explanation goes something along these lines: there are two main types of blood cholesterol; low density lipoprotein (LDL), which is the “bad” cholesterol, and high density lipoprotein (HDL) which is the “good” cholesterol. A diet high in saturated fat from red meat, butter, lard, palm oil, and coconut oil is known to raise LDL cholesterol levels, which in turn causes fatty buildup in the arteries (atherosclerosis) that can lead to heart attack, angina, and stroke.

HDL cholesterol has been referred to “good” cholesterol because it acts as a sort of scavenger, carrying LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and towards the liver where it is broken down. But recent research is suggesting that changes in HDL cholesterol, either by diet or drug treatment, can no longer be directly linked to changes in cardiovascular disease. So when determining whether or not a food is heart healthy, what we really need to consider is whether or not it raises LDL cholesterol.

A review paper such as this one is created to summarize current knowledge on a topic. The researchers collect recent research papers and discuss the findings presented in order to better understand the subject. In the review by the American Heart Association, seven controlled clinical trials were referenced that compared coconut oil with monounsaturated (such as olive and avocado oils) and polyunsaturated (such as safflower and sunflower) oils. In all seven of these trials, coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol, significantly in 6 of them. And these aren’t rinkey dink studies; they’re citing research programs such as the Framingham Heart Study, which follows thousands of people over many decades.

From this work, we now know that coconut oil raises both HDL and LDL cholesterol, and that we can no longer rely on the benefit of HDL cholesterol to balance things out. Thus, coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol and the recommendation is to avoid it.

So why are people freaking out? I think this sums it up nicely:

 A recent survey reported that 72% of the American public rated coconut oil as a “healthy food” compared with 37% of nutritionists.  This disconnect between lay and expert opinion can be attributed to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press.

Is that not completely bonkers?!

Bonkers, yes, but not at all surprising. And it completely mirrors my experience both online (in my private Facebook feed) and in real life. We live in an age of internet nutritionism where everyone is an expert and the actual experts are regarded with a side-eyed distrust. As I’ve said before, the nutrition pendulum has a tendency to swing. Nutrition research is incredibly complex, always changing. It’s also at times unreliable due to research funding, conflicts of interest, the fact that people lie on nutrition surveys. And a lot of nutrition research is conducted on animals like mice, but mice are not people. So nutrition is complicated, even for the experts, and ever changing, which is I think where this distrust tends to come from.

In the 10 years I spent working on two nutrition degrees, the single most important thing I learned was critical thinking.  So when I look at this “new” information on coconut oil, my opinion is this: In the end this review doesn’t really change much in terms of nutrition advice. It’s not like the American Heart Association was telling folks to eat gobs of coconut oil and they’re suddenly back pedalling.

Is coconut oil going to kill you? I think not. But nor do I think you should be eating great scoops of the stuff. If you like the taste of coconut oil, great. Consider it a treat and consume it in moderation.

Looking for more nutrition goodness?

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Comments

  1. Really interesting thank you. I do use coconut oil from time to time but tend to use olive oil or butter more. I’m quite a thrifty sort and I eat meat so I’ve been known to save dripping/lard from roasts to use in indulgent treats like roast potatoes. I also use cold pressed EV rapeseed oil – there also seems big conflicting opinions on this – but it’s a local product grown in Scotland by local businesses which is always nice to support. Would love a more detailed article on various forms of fats/oils as it seems a bit of a minefield. I generally just go with whatever tastes nice in the dish!

    • It’s definitely a minefield, and the information and recommendations are always changing. I think in general if you’re not using great gobs of the stuff and eat a balanced diet with lots of vegetables, you should be fine. I also buy canola / rapeseed since it’s local and a great neutral cooking oil, but my preference for cooking is olive oil. Good idea for a future post, I’ll get it in the queue!

      • I also heard that olive oil gets rancid as soon as you begin cooking with it. It suddenly becomes a free radical.

        • So, I try cooking with peanut oil, since I can’t afford avocado oil, and have heard bad things about canola.

          • I actually cook almost exclusively with olive oil. In recent research it comes out on top for cooking oils (though not for deep fat frying – which we should avoid anyways). I’m working on a post about the healthiest cooking oils which I hope will alleviate some of the confusion!

  2. What about ‘cold-pressed ‘virgin’ coconut oil’ vs reg coconut oil. I buy ‘cold pressed, virgin’ as I was told it is much better for you and not like regular…

    • Yep, so this is what people are all up in arms about. In the 80’s and 90’s when coconut oil was first deemed unhealthy it was the “regular” refined coconut oil that was used in a lot of baked goods and commercial treats. Then in the last 5-10 years or so the cold-pressed virgin coconut oil hit the shelves, and this is the stuff that people have been considering to be a healthy fat. But the most recent research has shown that all coconut oil, even the cold-pressed virgin stuff, raises LDL cholesterol. And while lauric acid found in virgin coconut oil does raise HDL (“good”) cholesterol, recall that raising HDL levels is no longer considered to offset raised LDL levels. And since coconut oil has also been shown to raise LDL levels, thus begins the fall from grace.

  3. Love this post. So true and I love this line… “We live in an age of internet nutritionism where everyone is an expert and the actual experts are regarded with a side-eyed distrust.”

    Thanks for being so knowledgeable and sharing your hard work with us!

  4. Totally agree with Christine, and my friend just shared these findings with me the other day! Great to hear your thoughts on the topic (as one of my trusted, actual-expert sources :)). YOU’RE THE BEST!

  5. I just stumbled on this site (reading about popcorn) and found it to be well balanced and researched information. So I thought – what else is there here, and is this a crack pot. I saw the coconut oil post and honestly had low expectations. I am pleasantly surprised to see you come out on the side of science and moderation! I will be watching this site more frequently!

    • Hey Pamela, your comment totally made my day! You might be surprised, but not everyone is happy to hear opinions based on science and moderation – I’ve even had my credibility questioned for aligning with scientific research backed by the AHA! So I really appreciate you taking the time to comment here – and I hope you’ll stick around!

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