Coconut oil. Is it good for you, bad for you? Should you just stick to putting it on your skin instead of sticking it in your body?
A statement by the American Heart Association (AHA) putting coconut oil on the naughty list had the natural health advocates and the skeptics alike in a tizzy in recent weeks.
The AHA review of existing data countered claims that the healthy fat builds muscles, increases weight loss and improves brain function.
“Because coconut oil increases LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favourable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil,” said the American Heart Association said in the Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory.
Instead of coconut oils (or other oils high in saturated fat, like butter or beef fat), they suggest olive or canola oils.
USA Today’s report on the review, saying “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy” went viral with over one million shares and has led to multiple other stories making the argument against coconut oil.
The only problem is, experts say coconut oil isn’t necessarily good or bad, it’s complicated.
“It turns out the research is waaaaay deeper and more conflicting than most people know, and even than most researchers know,” explains Kamal Patel, a nutrition researcher and the director of Examine.com, who has explored both sides of the coconut oil argument.
Take for instance studies that have linked coconut oil with weight-loss, but used purified oil which has 100 per cent medium-chain triglycerides (which are believed to increase metabolism), instead of the typical off-the-shelf coconut oil which contains only 13 to 15 per cent MCTs.
“Although MCT oils which are rich in laurate (such as coconut oil) may have a slightly reduced impact on weight gain compared to many other oils, all oil is high in kilojoules, so consuming large amounts can still cause weight gain,” says dietitian, Melanie McGrice.
As well as differences in the types of oil used, many studies are conducted in mice, not humans and the human studies often look at communities where people are consuming the whole coconut (fibre and all) as well as lots of fruits and fish and vegetables (and very little processed foods).
“Whilst it’s true that Asian and Oceanic communities which rely on coconut oil as their oil of choice tend to have low levels of heart disease, this could be more reflective of their lifestyles than the fact that they consume coconut oil,” says McGrice. “So, I don’t believe that we can focus on the coconut oil as the ingredient reducing heart disease levels in these communities in isolation.”
Others argue that the AHA advice is compromised by Big Food investors like Nestle, Coca Cola and the US Canola Association.
“You can easily imagine how a few pushy industry leaders might be able to influence AHA recommendations,” says Chris Kresser, integrative and functional medicine practitioner, whose analysis concludes: “Don’t stress about eating coconut oil. The stress is probably more likely to give you heart disease.”
Design discrepancies and distrust aside, there is also the argument around saturated fats and heart health to consider.
“I want to comment on this whole coco-nuts thing,” said controversial Dr Mark Hyman, director of the Cleveland Clinical Center for Functional Medicine, in response to the AHA review.
“There’s a crazy set of posts about how bad coconut oil is… that is just a bunch of nonsense.”
In an argument supported by recent research, Hyman says saturated fat is not the cause of heart disease.
“The idea is this: coconut oil is a saturated fat, saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol, LDL cholesterol causes heart disease,” Hyman said. “Well, that is actually not true. LDL is just a bystander in the process of making heart disease because when it’s oxidised or damaged then it becomes dangerous.
“That happens in the context of an inflammatory diet, in the context of processed foods, in the context of a high sugar/carb diet. The AHA that made this claim has no evidence that coconut oil is dangerous. There’s not a single study that shows it’s dangerous, it’s all based on the hypothesis of the idea of an outdated concept called the diet/ heart hypothesis which is that heart disease is caused by cholesterol and we now know it’s caused by inflammation.”
Cardiologist and adviser to the UK’s National Obesity Forum, Dr Aseem Malhotra, has previously addressed the same issue.
“Good fats – extra virgin olive oil, nuts, butter, coconut oil – are anti-inflammatory and reduce the risk of a heart attack,” Malhotra said, Dr David Sullivan, a cholesterol expert, at the Royal Prince Alfred, has said we need to look at the whole picture of our diet, lifestyle and activity levels.
“Moderate amounts of healthy fats are an absolutely appropriate part of a healthy diet” Sullivan said last year. “There are a number of different factors that contribute to heart disease.”
Patel argues that there’s a case both for and against coconut oil but in moderation it’s fine.
“High coconut oil intakes may increase cardiovascular disease risk, but evidence is conflicting,” says Patel. “Observational evidence is positive, trial evidence in humans and animals is mixed. Coconut oil has potentially beneficial MCTs in it, but at lower levels than people think. New evidence comes out each year.”
He adds: “If you like the taste, great. Or if you find evidence convincing, or want a stable cooking oil, excellent. Just make an informed decision for yourself instead of following the crowd.”
Melanie McGrice agrees: “To me, that’s the key message: coconut oil is not a superfood that needs to be consumed regularly, but neither is it taboo.”