It’s been all over the news lately. Coconut oil is the new dietary suicide! I just read in USA Today an article titled “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy.” Afterward, I had patients coming into the office in somewhat of a frenzy. “Should I stop eating coconut oil?” And the confusion about what consists of a healthy diet continues.
So, first I think its important to understand why coconut oil is being vilified at the moment. Coconut oil is high in a type of fat called saturated fat. Saturated fat is found in many natural foods we eat throughout the day- meat, nuts, avocados, even 50% of the fat found in human breast milk is saturated fat. Saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol. LDL cholesterol is the so-called “bad” cholesterol. However, the only time LDL is truly “bad” cholesterol is when it is oxidized in the presence of a diet high in pro-inflammatory foods including: sugar, candy, refined grains, dairy, processed and fried foods.
The benefits of consuming coconut oil as part of a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet are considerable. Coconut oil contains high amounts of anti-oxidants, which help to decrease inflammation in the pain1. Along with that, it can even help improve brain health! This study2 found that coconut oil consumption helped to improve people’s ability to recall information in older adults. Researchers believe that this beneficial effect comes from certain types of fatty acid found in coconut oil called medium chain triglycerides. Medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s) are easily absorbed and readily used as fuel for your body and brain. They do not require bile to be broken down and absorbed by the body (most dietary fat requires bile, made in the liver and stored in the gallbladder, to break down and absorb fat). Your body uses little to no energy to absorb MCT’s. Also, because of their smaller molecular structure (opposed to long-chain triglycerides) they are easy for the body to metabolize and turn into fuel, making them a great pre-workout snack.
There have been no studies conducted that link coconut oil to heart disease of any kind. None. Zero. This paper3, which is quoted by the American Heart Association and used as evidence in the USA Today article, looks at the effects of coconut oil consumption on lipid levels in people with moderately elevated cholesterol levels. A few things worth pointing out in this paper. It was first published in 1995, more than 20 years ago. Another problem is the amount of participants in the study- 25. 25 people! We can’t make dietary recommendations based on findings from a study looking at only 25 people. And one more glaring issue. The population of people in this study had triglyceride levels that were well into the 200’s. These participants already had elevated triglycerides before the study was conducted. These levels should fall somewhere under 100 in a healthy adult. So not a great paper to generalize from.
I think it’s valuable, also, that we look at an area of the world where they consume coconut oil as a staple4. This will give us a better idea of what consumption of coconut oil on a daily basis does to the body, importantly the heart. This brings us to Kitava (Solomon sea) and Tokelau (a pacific island). These cultures consume about 45% of their daily intake in the form of saturated fat from coconut oil…and have some of lowest cardiovascular disease rates in the world. It’s very important to understand, their diets and the standard American diet (SAD diet) are completely different. The SAD diet consists of a lot of processed grains, fried foods, and sugar. So when you throw coconut oil into this terrible mix, of course its not going to offset such a high inflammatory diet.
So should you stop eating coconut oil? That depends. If you’re eating a SAD diet, the anti-inflammatory effects of coconut oil3 will not save you, you’ll need to change a few more things before benefiting from the addition of coconut oil (cut out processed grains, fried foods, sugar, dairy). However, if you’re eating a healthy diet filled with fruits, veggies, lean mets, healthy nuts, etc- adding a bit of coconut oil into the diet would not be a problem, and you’d reap the benefits of some good medium chain triglycerides.
- Polyphenolics isolated from virgin coconut oil inhibits adjuvant induced arthritis in rats through antioxidant and anti-inflammatory action. A. Vysakh, M. Ratheesh, T. P. Rajmohanan, C. Pramod, S. Premlal, B. Girish kumar, P. I. Sibi Int Immunopharmacol. 2014 May; 20(1): 124–130. Published online 2014 Mar 6.
- Galvin JE. OPTIMIZING DIAGNOSIS AND MANANGEMENT IN MILD-TO-MODERATE ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE. Neurodegenerative disease management. 2012;2(3):291-304. doi:10.2217/nmt.12.21.
- Effects of coconut oil, butter, and safflower oil on lipids and lipoproteins in persons with moderately elevated cholesterol levels. Cox, J. Mann, W. Sutherland, A. Chisholm, M. Skeaff J Lipid Res. 1995 Aug; 36(8): 1787–1795.
- Eyres L, Eyres MF, Chisholm A, Brown RC. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutrition Reviews. 2016;74(4):267-280. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuw002.