Coconut Oil: Panacea or Poison?

If you’re plugged into the online world there’s every chance you would have seen an array of articles this week documenting a Professor’s claim that coconut oil is poison.  It’s not unlike nutritional topics to attract polarising opinions – I’d chance on the fact you’ve also heard the claim that coconut oil is a superfood – yet I was somewhat surprised to see a Professor make such an outlandish claim regarding any food; particularly one that is, apart from extraction processing, largely unadulterated from its natural state.  You could give her the benefit of the doubt and suggest that she was knowingly exaggerating to further her point.  However such hyperbole around a confusing topic such as food does little to lead the public in the right direction.  There are two things to address here then.  Firstly, is coconut oil “good” for you, and secondly, why one still can’t consume it even if it isn’t as healthy as some claims may suggest.

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Dr. Karin Michels claim that coconut oil is poison is based solely on its high levels of saturated fatty acids.  Such a claim rests on the notion that saturated fat is bad for your health, which has long been thought to be true.  Research spanning between the 1940’s and 1980’s – particularly the work of Dr. Ancel Keys who proposed the diet-heart hypothesis – resulted in widespread scientific consensus that a high intake of saturated fat raises levels of LDL cholesterol (often known as bad cholesterol), which in turn increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Current official dietary guidelines are still influenced from the 1980’s consensus, hence Dr. Michels purporting that “coconut oil clogs the arteries”.

It would be farcical to suggest there is no evidence to support such a notion.  Yet fast forward three decades and we also have a stack of evidence to suggest the link may not be so clear cut.  It’s also important to note here how slow some organisations are to adapt to new research.  This makes sense in part; scientific consensus takes time.  However it also means that official guidelines can be wrong whilst new science is available.

Take for example the link between dietary cholesterol and blood cholesterol.  It was long thought that both saturated fat and dietary cholesterol impacted blood cholesterol.  However as research began to emerge indicating that this may not be the case, it took years for the Heart Foundation to finally adjust their recommendations, to finally state that “Cholesterol in food only has a small effect on the level of cholesterol in your blood”.

We are now in a space where the degree of impact of saturated fat on blood cholesterol is also being hotly debated.  As mentioned, there is plenty of evidence to suggest a link between the two, but if one had a diet that was otherwise well-balanced, low in sugar, and high in plant foods, would saturated fat have such an impact for that individual?  And if not, how is a food high in saturated fat poison?

Thankfully, such rhetoric has left most professional discussions.  Even the Heart Foundation has added more context around their recommendations concerning fat, because discussing a nutrient in isolation is a simple way of looking at nutrition; which is why hearing such from a Professor is both surprising and disappointing.

The most important thing to realise here is that a nutrient can never be entirely good or bad.  Let’s pretend for a second that saturated fat is the devil it’s made out to be.  Cacao is high in saturated fat, is chocolate all of a sudden off the table?  We’ll also be throwing out cheese, butter, and eggs.  Eggs for f**k’s sake.  The guidelines on which have back flipped more than Libs and their leadership.

We could go beyond saturated fat and look at other constituents of food that don’t exactly provide a whole host of benefits.  We know that alcohol isn’t exactly a superfood, do you want to get rid of wine, a priceless contributor to human society for millennia?  Yes?  But what about that research linking the polyphenols in red wine with decreased risk of heart disease and increased insulin sensitivity.  Doesn’t that make it healthy, or is it still unhealthy?  Can we keep it?

The truth is that it is neither (and yes, the vino stays in).  Whilst it is easier to say that a particular nutrient or food is either good or bad, superfood or poison, clean or dirty, it is also intellectually lazy to do so.  It is a pity then that such polarising claims have a monopoly on attention.  Confusion around nutrition is underpinned by a lack of nuance from the media peddling out whatever crazy claim gets them their clicks.  It’s so important then that we continue to highlight the need for context when viewing any particular nutrient or food.

Before you bin it…

So what about the context around coconut oil?  Should you consume it or not?  Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, but they are mostly Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) that get metabolised differently to longer chain saturated fatty acids.  The health buzz around coconut oil is built on this notion, and the host of benefits – including fat loss and mental focus – it supposedly provides.  However, evidence for such is limited beyond early research showing mild fat loss when MCTs replace other dietary fat [1].  So if you’re an advocate of bullet-proof coffee (I’d urge you to reconsider given the evidence), you’d want to ensure those fat calories are being removed from elsewhere in the diet.

There is evidence to suggest saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol (a known risk factor of CVD) when replacing carbohydrate or unsaturated fat in the diet [2].  However such research does not isolate MCTs – or other specific fatty acids – and rather looks at saturated fat on the whole.  Furthermore, there is no evidence directly linking saturated fat intake and risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, or cardiovascular disease in general [3].  It appears, yet again, that we don’t have a clear-cut answer.

One could turn to the Heart Foundations for their recommendations, which can be found here.  However based on the available research the following approach may be the simplest: try to stay lean, lower your sugar intake (if it is high), eat mostly plant foods, and allow up to a third of your fat intake to be from saturated fatty acids.  If you enjoy cooking with coconut oil and it fits into that, then go ahead and enjoy it.  You won’t die*.

*From the oil alone.  I’m not promising immortality.

  1. Krotkiewski, M., Value of VLCD supplementation with medium chain triglycerides. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord, 2001. 25(9): p. 1393-400.
  2. Organisation, W.H., Effects of saturated fatty acids on serum lipids and lipoproteins: a systematic review and regression analysis. 2016: p. 63.
  3. Chowdhury, R., et al., Association of dietary, circulating, and supplement fatty acids with coronary risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Ann Intern Med, 2014. 160(6): p. 398-406.

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