I’ve been taking the summer off from writing my Learning Curve posts, but I had to come back for this, because when someone makes a claim about food that I find outrageous, I just can’t hold my fire. I’m currently in the woods in Montana enjoying a family vacation, but I know you all are wondering: Is coconut oil really poison? I had to give you the answer to this question ASAP, so here it is.
Is Coconut Oil Poison??
A Harvard professor recently proclaimed that coconut oil is ‘pure poison’.
Karin Michaels, the epidemiologist who made this assertion, did so on the basis that coconut oil is over 80% saturated fat, and saturated fats are supposed to be terrible for us.
Now, I’d like to think a Harvard professor would know better than to use fear-mongering language about food that’s scary and confusing to laypeople. But then I think about how many crappy fad diets are written by people who have attended Ivy League schools, and I remember that in the world of nutrition, you can’t always rely on a person with an expensive degree for good information.
Any time I see anyone using hyperbolic language to describe a particular food, I immediately know that they’re full of BS. Sigh, and I see this far too often. You all know that one single food isn’t going to end your life any more than it’s going to save it. So let’s stop with the craziness!!
Since this whole ‘poison coconut oil’ kerfuffle has happened, I’ve been fielding questions from confused readers who aren’t sure if they should pitch their expensive coconut oil. Let’s take a look at the evidence on saturated fats and coconut.
Coconut Oil and Saturation Fats
We’ve always tried to avoid saturated fats because they’ve been implicated in elevating cholesterol. Coconut oil appears to raise LDL and HDL – both the good and the bad cholesterol in our bodies, but whether saturated fats as a whole actually cause health issues is more complicated than it’s made out to be. We don’t even know everything about how different types of HDL or LDL are influenced by certain genetics and dietary components and ultimately, how our health is affected by them. We continue to believe that elevated LDL is a risk factor for heart disease.
Now is the perfect time to show you how complicated nutrition research is and why you should be moderate in your assumptions.
In 2017, the ADA released an advisory about dietary saturated fats and the risk of CVD and stroke, and I’m going to use this advisory to demonstrate how these things aren’t black and white (yet still inform our national nutrition policies).
To draw their conclusions – which were that saturated fats should be avoided – the ADA did a meta analysis of all of the existing evidence on coconut oil and health. Meta analyses are good because they consolidate all of the research out there and come to a conclusion on a question, in this case: ‘is saturated fat unhealthy’. Not so fast though! The monkey wrenches in the gears are:
- A lot of nutrition research isn’t super-reliable
- Coconut oil isn’t like other saturated fats
- Most if not all of the research used in this advisory was not on coconut oil itself; it was on saturated fats as a whole
Coconut oil contains lauric acid-rich medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are still saturated, but have a different structure and may not be as harmful to our health as other saturated fats. Still, other studies have shown that lauric acid may actually increase risk of heart disease. Ahhhhhhh! Confused yet?
Many of the studies used in this review focused on saturated fats from all sources, not just coconut oil. So it’s tough to isolate the role, if any, coconut oil had in the conclusions that those studies came to. What if it was mainly the fats in the beef the subjects were eating? We don’t even know if these people were eating coconut oil at all.
Some of the studies in the analysis used animals, so unless you’re an African Green Monkey, those ones aren’t really compelling evidence.
Many of the studies had people self report their diet and/or, eat a diet that cut total fats (not just saturated ones). We know for a fact that people lie when they self-report what they’ve eaten. We also understand that cutting total fat – of which saturated fat is just a percentage – is going to confound our question about coconut oil. You can see how some of the evidence could be confounded.
For nutrition, it’s just really hard to get an accurate picture of how diet affects health. Epidemiological studies can show trends, but they can’t really pinpoint causation; they’re more like educated guesses. Randomized controlled trials also have their flaws including self-reporting and dropout rates. Many of the studies used in the analysis were old.
In order to get a really good picture of how diet affects health, we’d have to put a population into a lab and control what it ate and did for years and years. This isn’t ethical any more than it is possible, so for now, we’re stuck deriving information in the usual way: Looking at trends and asking people what they’ve been eating. It’s not all bad, but it’s certainly far from perfect.
This is what we do know (and what we think we know) about coconut oil and saturated fats:
Peoples’ health and disease risk appears to improve when they replace a portion of saturated fats in their diets with unsaturated fats like avocado and olive oils.
There aren’t a lot of human studies that involve just coconut oil. There are studies using MCTs like the ones that coconut oil contains, that suggest MCTs may help with weight loss. The trouble is that coconut oil doesn’t only contain MCTs like the oil in the studies – it’s only about 15% MCTs, and the rest are LCTs (long chain triglycerides).
There’s just no convincing evidence that shows us that coconut oil – or any other saturated fat – is healthier for us than other fats, or that we will be healthy if we choose to eat a large amount of it. The majority of evidence points to saturated fats being less healthy than other fats OR neutral in terms of cardiovascular risk.
Animal studies aren’t good ways of predicting how humans will react in the same situation.
If you’re seeing people on Twitter or Facebook saying how much they love coconut oil and how it has changed their lives, think again. I have a few things to say about all those people and ‘health gurus’ who say that they eat tons of coconut oil and other saturated fats and their health and cholesterol are fine:
- They’ve probably been eating like this for a relatively short time, and long-term, the results may be very different
- You don’t know how much coconut oil they’re eating and what other fats they’re consuming
- They might be lying
- They might have great cholesterol (even more of them probably haven’t had their cholesterol checked in years but still, they feel great. Rolling my eyes here), but they could be outliers; you might react differently
- You don’t know what the rest of their diet consists of in real life
- You’re not those people genetically, or any other way
- N=1 studies abound in this crazy post-truth era, and taking them to heart is like basing your life and health on testimonials. Please don’t
- Don’t be that person on Twitter who tells everyone about how great their diet is. Everybody hates those people
Populations whose native diets include larger amounts of coconut oil don’t seem to be affected by higher risk of heart disease or stroke, but are typically eating whole, minimally processed foods, not ultra-processed food with hydrogenated coconut oil and refined carbohydrates. There’s a huge difference between their diet and the Standard American Diet.
Coconut oil is touted for its antioxidants, but I wouldn’t eat oil for the antioxidants, just like I don’t eat salt for the minerals.
If you like coconut oil, enjoy it in your diet with a combination of other fats, especially unsaturated ones. Research suggests that replacing some of the saturated fats we eat – and I’d lump coconut oil in there too – with unsaturated fats like avocado and olive oil, may reduce our risk of heart disease.
Coconut Oil is Not Poison
I always have believed that a healthy diet includes a variety of all fats (with the exception of trans fats, nobody is arguing that those are unhealthy). But to say that coconut oil is poison is just as wrong as saying that it’s ‘healing’ or a ‘superfood’. It’s none of those things. It’s not ‘healthy’. It’s just a fat, with 120 calories a tablespoon just like any other fat. Don’t fall prey to nutrition fads promising ‘miracle’ foods. Remember that a diet that’s moderate – with tons of minimally-processed foods, some less-than-healthy foods, and a good attitude towards food and eating – will never go out of favour.