Is Coconut Oil Good or Bad For You? We Break Down the Controversy

 Via  Giphy

Via Giphy

By Jessica Hamlin

You may have seen recent trending headlines that coconut oil—which seems to be in all the things the past few years—is not, in fact, good for you to consume.

Since coconut oil is often celebrated as healthy or even a weight loss aid in everything from baking to coffee—and that’s just for the inside of your body—this news surprised many people who include coconut oil in their diet, as well as the health community.

Let’s break down the coconut oil controversy:

THE HEADLINE

This story first made waves when USA Today published an article titled “Coconut Oil Isn’t Healthy. It’s Never Been Healthy.”

THE CLAIMS

The article referenced a recent report by the American Heart Association:

The Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory reviewed existing data on saturated fat, showing coconut oil increased LDL ("bad") cholesterol in seven out of seven controlled trials. Researchers didn't see a difference between coconut oil and other oils high in saturated fat, like butter, beef fat and palm oil. In fact, 82% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, according to the data — far beyond butter (63%), beef fat (50%) and pork lard (39%).
"Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil," the American Heart Association said in the Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory

In a follow-up article, USA Today recommends people instead use oils high in monounsaturated fat like olive oil and avocado oil and the AHA’s recommended canola, soy, corn and peanut oils that are high in polyunsaturated fats.

Note: This article and study focus on the internal consumption of coconut oil, not using it as a moisturizer or other topical ways.

WHY THIS MATTERS

Coconut oil has gotten very popular, touted as a superfood and healthier oil the past several years and is in numerous products and recipes.

Also, the AHA’s recommendation of corn, soy and canola oil matters since some wellness experts have dubbed these oils unhealthy since they allegedly contribute to issues like inflammation in the body. In case you don’t know, chronic inflammation contributes to a number of health concerns such as cancer. Plus, soy, corn and canola are three of the biggest GMO crops.

THINGS TO CONSIDER

When a new study comes out about anything, it’s important to look at who conducted the study. Is it an industry, company or person who could gain from the study’s alleged findings? Could they have been influenced by a powerful industry, company or person?

It came to light last year that 50 years ago the sugar industry quietly paid scientists to demonize fat instead of sugar, leading to the boom of low fat “diet” foods loaded with sugar and other unhealthy ingredients.

Also to consider: What exactly did the study test, how did it test it, how big was the study, and have the results been replicated or confirmed by a reputable expert or organization? Could other factors have contributed to the study’s results—was correlation but not causation at play?

THE RESPONSE

A variety of health experts swiftly—and strongly—responded to USA Today’s article and the study demonizing coconut oil. Some affirmed the American Heart Association, while others criticized the advisory.

There’s a lot of information out there, but here are some highlights:

Not a single study shows that coconut oil causes heart disease. The whole case against coconut oil is founded on a hypothesis that has been proven wrong (that saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol causes heart disease).

Coconut oil lowers insulin levels, raises “good” cholesterol and improves the quality of “bad” cholesterol.

- Functional medicine doctor Mark Hyman, MD  

The AHA advisory was not focused on coconut oil but also warned against certain dairy products like cheese. “The public needs to be taught to eat less meat, butter and cheese and find replacements like beans, vegetable oil spreads free of trans fats, and nut based cheeses.”

– Plant-based cardiologist Joel Kahn, MD

The doctors from plant-based Forks Over Knives don’t recommend any oil at all, including coconut oil, and re-shared this article on Facebook. They say coconut oil is mostly devoid of nutrients and any of its so-called beneficial medium-chain fatty acids are outweighed by the 90% saturated fat content.

SO, WHAT NOW?

The health of coconut oil, like other foods, may need to be taken with a grain of salt—not literally, unless a recipe calls for it.

Some tips to help you sort it out:

Listen to your body.

Each person’s body and lifestyle is different. So sometimes bodies react differently to various foods. Granted, sometimes we don’t see a food’s effects right away or it’s tough to exactly pinpoint why our body feels a certain way.

Remember size matters.

When talking about the “health” of a food it’s important to take into account serving size, food combinations and your level of activity. For example, the protein and healthy fat in nut butter can be good for you, but eating a whole jar in a day is probably not the best idea unless you’re Michael Phelps. Even kale can be a bad thing if you consume a lot.

Our bodies need a variety of nutrients and vitamins, not just one or a few, so even with health foods you can have too much of a good thing if you exclude other nourishing foods in the process.

When it comes to healthy fats, Americans tend to consume too many Omega-6 fats (which come from items like vegetable oil) compared to Omega-3 fats. This is because refined vegetable oils are in many products nowadays like soups, sauces, dressings, chips, bread, cereal, roasted nuts and more. So balance is key.

Try to get nutrition from whole foods.

Since it can be easy to overdo it on oils, getting healthy fats from whole food sources like avocado, nuts or coconut meat helps prevent overconsumption since we are not eating just oil, and it helps us feel more full if other elements are in the mix like fiber or protein.

If you do consume oil, it’s best to stick with the unrefined kind. 


Jessica Hamlin is an LA-born and bred journalist and editor who started taking pictures of food back when everyone used film cameras. A graduate of the Institute for Integrative Nutrition’s health coach training program, she’s passionate about wellness and enjoys making and discovering delicious and healthy food. Her work has appeared in Clean Plates, NPR affiliate KPCC, AOL, and Eater LA.

 

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