It’s not going to kill you—and it’s not going to save your life, either.
Since coconut oil has become the rage in alternative health and medicine, I have read about it being used in everything. Stir fry. Salad dressings. Hair softening. Facial moisturizer, foot moisturizer, and everywhere—and I do goddamn mean everywhere—in between. You deviants.
But suddenly a report comes out from the American Heart Association that, whaaa?!, coconut oil is a saturated fat, and, gasp, eating buckets of saturated fat is a thing that’s unhealthy, and everyone is acting like this is news. The Huffington Post reported, “New Study Confirms Coconut Oil Is Alarmingly High in Saturated Fat,” telling people not to eat it anymore. USA Today reported that coconut oil has “never been healthy.” This is after years of everyone and their mom calling it “healthy.”
Why is this a shock, why was there all this confusion, and what are you supposed to do with your jar of piña colada scented cooking oil, moisturizer, and sexual lubricant?
Well, you can keep that jar in your naughty little goody drawer AND in your pantry.
The TL;DR version is: Coconut oil is goddamn delicious, but for fuck’s sake, you shouldn’t drink it. It’s not going to cure anything, but even with recent reports that coconut oil is just Big Coconut’s way to clog your arteries, you don’t need to throw out your jar of it.
If you really want to understand what all the hubbub is about, you should think about that report a bit. Allow me to help.
Let’s talk about fat. Are some fats good and some fats bad? As tends to be the case, it’s not that simple.
Mono, poly, and saturated, oh my! When you look at a food label, along with calorie counts and grams of carbs and protein, you’ll also see a few sub-categories of fat. These include monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, and saturated. They all have the same number of calories per gram, and your body has uses for all of them, but they definitely have variations in chemical structures and how much you consume of each type can have different levels of impact on your health over time.
The evidence at this point is a little nebulous on which fats directly contribute to heart problems. It’s been shown that switching saturated fats out for unsaturated fats can reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) significantly. But that is only true in a practical sense when you take into account the rest of your diet. As part of a healthy diet, choosing unsaturated fats over saturated fats will reduce your CVD risk. If you eat mostly cupcakes, you can’t switch out a small tab of butter or coconut oil for canola oil on a plate of veggies and expect that your heart health is going to improve.
One tablespoon of coconut oil has about 14 grams of fat, nearly 12 of which are saturated fat.
The American Heart Association report that everyone is freaking out about really didn’t say anything shocking or surprising about coconut oil.
Because really, since when is “saturated fat is bad for you” new information? Come the fuck on.
One short section of the 24-page AHA report that caused such a meltdown last week focuses on coconut oil, because the association rightly determined that people don’t really get it when it comes to the popular product. “A recent survey reported that 72 percent of the American public rated coconut oil as a ‘healthy food’ compared with 37 percent of nutritionists,” the report reads. “This disconnect between lay and expert opinion can be attributed to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press.” The text goes on to look at a review of studies that compared coconut oil with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils, which found that coconut oil raised LDL (what people call “bad”) cholesterol in all cases, and raised it the same amount as other oils high in saturated fat, including butter and beef fat. The AHA concluded, “because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”
But wait. This did not suddenly change the information we have on saturated fats. This was information we had for a long time. It’s just that because coconuts have been touched by the “health halo,” a phenomenon that makes us think something natural is healthier despite a lack of evidence, reporters hungry for clicks seized on the opportunity to “inform” their readership that EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT ABOUT COCONUT OIL WAS WRONG. And, yeah, maybe it was, but that’s not because scientists and doctors didn’t understand coconut oil. It’s because you were basically tricked into thinking it’s God’s gift to Whole Foods.
Why did everyone think coconut oil was magic for five hot minutes?
Rihanna. Specifically, a marketing campaign featuring Rihanna from beverage manufacturer Vita Coco made some overblown health claims for coconut water. People who wanted a wellness booster that didn’t seem too processed and was fit for a diva were more than happy to climb aboard the coconut bandwagon.
(A quick note about coconut water: Surely you’ve seen bottles of organic-y sounding elixirs of coconut water promising to hydrate you better than water because of their naturally occurring electrolytes. Even with its high levels of potassium, coconut water does not hydrate any better than plain water, as shown in study after study. If you’re aiming to stay hydrated for endurance activities, relying on sports drinks might be a better bet. If you’re thirsty, just drink something.)
At some point, everyone started going… coco-nuts (I went there and I’m sorry or you’re welcome). Years ago I read about a model saying she would eat a few tablespoons of coconut oil daily. Can you imagine, a model eating fat? It must work as a weight-loss miracle! Even I bought a jar. Or two.
Coconut oil caught a ride on the green wave, too. Doesn’t it seem less processed than the other fats? Coconut oil looks like it’s just been pressed from the plant and even smells like a coconut, making it easy to sell with marketing trends. Even if you can read a bunch of data and studies that show how other oils like canola and olive oil have healthier components, in a push to be more “natural” it’s easy to be swayed into thinking something is bad because it doesn’t resemble the original product.
Smelling like the beach doesn’t make coconut oil healthier than other fats, and it never has.
So what should you do with that jar of coconut oil?
Do what I do: Keep using it in moderation like any other fat, but note that “moderately” for something that’s an incredibly dense form of saturated fat calories tends to mean “minimally.”
We have to be reasonable. Coconuts are saturated fats, but as far as saturated fats go, this one isn’t the worst. It’s a really good inert fat with a pleasant taste, and if you’re burning it off it’s not really quantifiable as much more dangerous than any other fat. The internet’s premier site for health and nutritional supplement marketing claims, Examine.com, took a thorough analysis of the evidence on coconut oil. Indeed, switching out other fats in your diet for coconut oil can have some minor health benefits due to its medium chain triglycerides:
“Adding coconut oil to a diet is unlikely to cause noticeable fat loss effects, but it can replace other dietary fatty acids in order to fine-tune a diet plan.”
Again, this means being reasonable with the amount of intake, and the evidence points to an intake of between 7.5 and 15 grams for the average person. Enjoy your coconut oil, but stop pretending it’s going make you lose weight, cure your acne, do your taxes, and prevent Tinder dates from ghosting.
Please, internet, alternative health bloggers, people who just want to live in Margaritaville: Coconuts are not a cure-all. Coconut oil is not a miracle for weight loss, coconut water is not better than water for hydration, and whatever Gwyneth Paltrow tells you to do with coconuts next week will probably be bullshit, too.
But that’s no reason to stop enjoying coconut oil occasionally, from whatever drawer in your house you keep it in.