Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, you’ve probably heard about the latest coconut oil “news”. The American Heart Association (AHA) recently came out with a report that states “we advise against the use of coconut oil because it increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of heart disease.” Funny thing about it is that their report isn’t based on any new evidence: all of the research comes from studies that have been conducted in the past. Nevertheless, news publications have caused an uproar by publishing articles, like this one, titled “Coconut Oil Isn’t Healthy. It’s Never Been Healthy.” Everyone is up in arms because the topic of coconut oil as a health food has been controversial for quite some time now. There are people who have shamed it all along, while others (including myself!) have promoted it as a healthy oil to cook and bake with. Let me just say that NO WONDER why everyone is so incredibly confused. I thought I’d pop-in today to clear up some of the confusion and let you know that no, you don’t need to be scared of coconut oil.
Alright, let’s back up a bit to talk about why coconut oil is shamed by some in the first place. Coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat, which has been deemed unhealthy for a long time due to the thought that it increases heart disease risk. Sadly, the war on saturated fat is based on some pretty poor research and many studies fail to recognize that there are several different types of saturated fats. Just like there are several types of unsaturated fats (monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, etc.) that have different effects on the body, the different types of saturated fats have different effects on the body as well. If your diet is full of saturated fats that come from highly processed junk foods in addition to lots of refined carbohydrates and sugar, then yes, the fat you’re eating may very well be contributing to your health issues and increasing heart disease risk. However, if you eat a diet based around whole, minimally processed foods including lots of plants and some meat/poultry/fish, you’re probably going to be JUST FINE even if you cook your vegetables and fry your eggs in coconut oil. *Gasp.*
There’s a whole lot more rhyme & reason behind why saturated fat isn’t necessarily a health risk, and there’s simply not enough evidence to make a firm conclusion that it’s unhealthy. I’m not saying you should eat ALL the saturated fat that you want but there’s no reason to fear it especially if you consume a diet that’s generally healthy and balanced. If you want to learn more about the saturated fat controversy, check out one of these articles, which are written by some of my well-respected fellow RDs:
Another primary reason why AHA claims that coconut oil increases heart disease risk is because, as stated above, it has been shown to increase LDL cholesterol, or “bad” cholesterol (similar to other foods that are high in saturated fat). Well, because it isn’t 1970 anymore, we now know that LDL comes in different “sizes” and it’s NOT ALL BAD. There are fluffy, marshmallow-like LDL particles which are actually not problematic, and there are small, dense LDL particles that ARE problematic because they can sneak their way into your arteries and cause inflammation. You can have your LDL particle sizes measured with an NMR lipoprofile test. Sadly, it isn’t standard procedure to use this test to measure LDL particle sizes. Typically, it’s just total LDL cholesterol that gets measured and if you’re seeing a conventional doctor, chances are they’ll tell you you’re at risk for heart disease if your LDL is elevated and may try to prescribe medications. Most studies that examine coconut oil’s effect on LDL do NOT take into account the different LDL particles, they just measure total LDL which ultimately doesn’t tell us a whole lot.
Aside from all of this….I think it’d be great if we ALL took a step back and stopped shaming foods (nutrition professionals included). No single food, including coconut oil, is going to cause heart disease OR cure all of your ailments. It’s your diet, lifestyle & genetics as a whole that contribute to your overall health and longevity. If you eat an excessive amount of coconut oil all day every day for a long period of time, then yes your health might suffer. Same goes for ALL foods, including kale, and sweet potatoes, and strawberries, and pizza, and ice cream. Hopefully you see where I’m going with this – coconut oil is NOT going to hurt you if you consume it along with a well-balanced diet that’s full of lots of healthy, nutrient-dense foods.
ANOTHER point I want to make is that nutrition is highly individualized. That’s what dietitians are here for – to help you figure out what foods work best for you and your body…not your neighbor’s, or your child’s, or your co-worker’s. Every. Single. Person has different biochemistry and metabolizes foods differently. For some, coconut oil may cause issues – it could cause digestive distress, allergic reactions and YES, it could contribute to heart disease risk. For others, it may benefit their health by helping to keep blood sugar levels stable, promoting fullness and it could even increase HDL (good) cholesterol. My point here is that everyone is different and if coconut oil works for you, then that’s fantastic! And if it doesn’t, that’s okay too–there are plenty of other fats and oils you can experiment with!
If you’re wondering what I’m going to do about this coconut oil “news,” my answer is absolutely nothing! I’ve never claimed coconut oil to be a super food (because it’s not). It does have some powerful anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial properties but when it comes to nutrients, it really contains nothing but fat and zero vitamins and minerals. Because of its saturated fat content, it’s excellent to cook and bake with, and I’m going to CONTINUE using it in cooking and baking whenever I please (and I’ll keep using it as lotion and face moisturizer, too!). I’m not going to let the AHA scare me or my clients. I’m going to be a bit harsh here, but think about it: heart disease has been prevalent in the US for a long time and nothing has changed despite all of AHA’s “recommendations.” I mean, they’re still recommending margarine and vegetable oil, as if it’s still 1990!