Is Coconut Oil Healthy?: an overly complex answer to an overly-simplified question

Jeremy PennerNutrition, Smarten Up3 Comments

is coconut oil healthy

Is coconut oil healthy? Well… nutrition science is complex…

End of story. G’day. 

Just kidding.

But really, the study of nutrition is still relatively young and incomplete. So if you’re wondering if coconut oil is healthy, the short answer is: we don’t really know enough yet.

That may be frustrating to hear, so allow me to make excuses for my chosen field of practice, and give you the longer answer to your question about coconut oil.

why nutritional science doesn’t know enough

Nutritional studies are modelled after pharmaceutical (drug) studies. When researchers study drugs, things remain relatively simple. They have a problem, like a bacterial infection, and a desired outcome, a cure to the infection. They choose drugs to use as test items, and the one with the highest cure rate is the winner… the solution to the problem.

Unfortunately when we move this concept to nutrition, the problem, the test item, and the solution are not always so simply laid out.

Nutrition scientists are looking to improve people’s health in general, not to cure a specific disease. This is a much more broad desired outcome, since “improved health” can refer to many things. This means the  problem, test item, and solution are not as specific!

Think about this like the difference between hitting a stationary target in a shooting range, and going hunting in stormy weather, where you don’t even know what animal you’re supposed to be hunting. Even when you do hit the animal you aimed at, it won’t necessarily be the one you were supposed to hit in the first place.

This is nutrition testing. There are many things that can affect the testing! It can be really hard to get accurate results or even know exactly what endpoint to chase. 

is coconut oil healthy

so? is coconut oil healthy or not?

You’d think I’d be ready to answer this by now, but first I have to point out a problem with what the American Heart Association (AHA) has to say about fats and cardiovascular disease:

“We conclude strongly that lowering intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease.”

You might think this is a strong point AGAINST coconut oil, but there are a few points I feel they missed in coming to their conclusion. (Warning, this section might only be interesting to other nutrition nerds.)

  1. We shouldn’t lump all sources of saturated fat together. Your body handles 80% of the fats in coconut oil differently than most fats. These special “short chain” fats are handled by the liver, which is able to intelligently choose what to do with those fats. This means sometimes they’ll be used for energy rather than stored as fat on your body. The AHA is missing a key variable.
  2. The AHA is aiming to lower LDL cholesterol, which has the reputation of being bad cholesterol. But recent research is showing that the mere presence of LDL cholesterol isn’t necessarily harmful in and of itself. Atherosclerosis (plaques that cause narrowing of blood vessels) are made up largely of LDL cholesterol. So it would seem that lowering LDL would reduce the plaques that cause heart disease. However you need to look at the root cause of plaques. Plaques don’t form on healthy tissue. It’s only when a blood vessel is damaged that a plaque starts to form. And how do blood vessels get damaged? Inflammation and oxidative stress. So LDL particles floating along in healthy blood vessels are not an issue. Yes, if tissue is damaged then a higher amount of LDL (particularly a high count of small particles) will increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. But we should really be focusing on keeping the tissue healthy first and foremost.  The AHA is missing the target.
  3. The AHA highlight the fact that the people of East Asia and the Mediterranean have low intakes of saturated fat and low rates of heart disease. What they failed to mention is that these populations also eat a lot of fish! Fish is a good source of omega 3 fatty acids, which have been shown to lower inflammation. I am, quite frankly, surprised that omega 3 fatty acids have been completely left out of the discussion in this paper! The AHA is missing another key variable.
  4. Further to the omega 3 equation, it’s also important to look at a person’s intake ratio of omega 3 to omega 6 fatty acids. Omega 6 fatty acids promote inflammation when they aren’t in a balanced ratio with omega 3 fatty acids. Omega 6 fatty acids are in higher amounts in certain vegetable oils such as corn oil, peanut oil, and soybean oil. The AHA recommends replacing saturated fat with unsaturated fat (such as vegetable oil) but doesn’t specify low omega 6 choices.  The AHA is missing another key variable.

Basically, what I’m trying to get at is that we really don’t have a complete picture of what’s going on with coconut oil.  I hope there will be future studies specifically examining the health outcomes of consuming virgin coconut oil.

Basically, what I’m trying to get at is that we really don’t have a complete picture of what’s going on with coconut oil.

Do I think people should abandon other foods and just start living off coconut oil blended with coffee? No. That’s a bit extreme. I think coconut oil is simply one choice among many options for use as a cooking/baking oil.

Coconut oil (and other dietary fats) are isolated food components. Coconut oil is just one part extracted from the whole fruit. If you’re eating fresh cracked coconut, then by all means, go ahead! You’re also getting fibre, carbs, water, electrolytes, minerals, etc. It’s going to be hard to overdo it on the fat. Many of the coconut oil proponents will point out that there are tropical populations that consume a lot of coconut but don’t have high rates of heart disease. What they fail to mention is that these people are typically consuming either whole coconuts or coconut milk. Fats behave completely different when they’re in a liquid matrix than when they’re isolated, but let’s leave that discussion for another day ūüôā

But as with most isolated food components (such as sugar, fruit juice, refined flours) coconut oil should be used in moderation. Bake with it on occasion, use it to fry up some veggies, or make a curry. Don’t go eating it by the spoonful. 

is coconut oil healthy

the solution

So what can you do to lower your risk of heart disease? Well, the AHA got it right when they pointed out the low rates of heart disease in people from the Mediterranean and East Asia. Follow their lead and focus on eating:

  • LOTS of veggies and fruit
  • less meat (especially processed) and more meat alternatives such as fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, and some eggs
  • whole grains
  • fermented foods (yogurt, cheese, kimchi, tempeh, etc) 
  • less sweetened foods and beverages
  • low omega 6 cooking oils in moderation

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3 Comments on “Is Coconut Oil Healthy?: an overly complex answer to an overly-simplified question”

  1. Thank you for this information that provides a comprehensive picture of coconut oil so that we can know enough to make a good decision for ourselves!

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