A Harvard professor recently caused an online frenzy when she called coconut oil “pure poison” and “one of the worst foods you can eat” in a viral video. Her bold statements add further controversy to the great fat debate in scientific circles. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left wondering, is coconut oil good or bad?
In a lecture titled “Coconut Oil and Other Nutritional Errors,” Karin Michels, adjunct professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said that health claims surrounding coconut oil are “absolute nonsense.” (Michels is also director of the Institute for Prevention and Cancer Epidemiology at the University of Freiburg in Germany, where the lecture took place.)
When it comes to fats, the answer isn’t clear cut. Yes, coconut oil is high in saturated fat (between 82 and 92 percent), but some recent studies have challenged the notion that saturated fat is “bad” for our health (1). If there is one idea that everyone can get behind, it’s this: dietary fat is only part of the equation.
“I believe that the ‘dose makes the poison’ when it comes to food,” says Becky Kerkenbush, a clinical dietitian and media representative for the Wisconsin Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “A person’s overall dietary pattern is what is important. Saturated fat is just one piece of the puzzle. The intake of fruit, vegetables and whole grains are also vital in the quality of a person’s diet.”
Many enthusiasts tout coconut oil as a healthy fat because it’s a naturally rich source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are broken down more rapidly and metabolized at a faster rate than long-chain triglycerides. Coconut oil consists of about 60 percent MCTs, nearly half of which are lauric acid (2).
Lauric acid is said to have antifungal, antibacterial, and antiviral properties and may even aid in weight loss (3). However, some nutrition experts believe that lauric acid behaves more like a long-chain fatty acid (as opposed to a medium-chain one) with regard to digestion and metabolism.
Evidence suggests that coconut oil, when compared with unsaturated plant oils, raises total cholesterol, though not as much as butter (4). “More research needs to be done before we recommend that people start adding coconut oil to their daily routines,” Kerkenbush notes.
The American Heart Association recommends that people who need to lower their cholesterol reduce saturated fat to no more than 5 to 6 percent of their total daily calories (5). That’s about 11 to 13 grams of saturated fat for someone eating 2,000 calories a day. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains about 13.5 grams of fat, 11.2 of which is saturated, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database.
That doesn’t mean you should go on a crusade against all saturated fat. “There’s no need to cut out all saturated fat (it wouldn’t be realistic as well), just reduce the amount consumed daily,” Kerkenbush recommends.
Fat is an essential nutrient and a crucial source of energy for the body. Without a certain amount of fat in your diet, your body would cease to perform a number of critical functions, such as enhancing absorption of fat-soluble nutrients (6). In fact, new research suggests that full-fat dairy foods are unlikely to increase risk of heart disease and stroke, two of the leading causes of death in the United States often associated with a diet high in saturated fat (7).
Marcia Otto, one of the study’s authors and an assistant professor in the Department of Epidemiology, Human Genetics and Environmental Sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health, raises a valid point about the importance of evidence-based research in educating people about nutrition.
“Consumers have been exposed to so much different and conflicting information about diet, particularly in relation to fats,” she stated in a press release. “It’s therefore important to have robust studies, so people can make more balanced and informed choices based on scientific fact rather than hearsay.”
So, is coconut oil safe to eat or not? Again, it’s all about moderation, says Katrina Trisko, a registered dietitian based in New York City. “If you enjoy the taste of coconut oil, use it less often, and in smaller amounts,” she says. “It’s also important to take other factors into consideration when it comes to our relative risk for disease. Physical activity plays a very large role in our health—in parallel with what we’re eating.”
Most research shows that monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats, like those found in olive, avocado and canola oils, are the most beneficial, Trisko says. “Focus on getting in the majority of your fats from these unsaturated sources, which are linked to improved cardiovascular health,” she recommends.
For everyday use, Kerkenbush suggests olive, peanut, avocado, canola, sesame, sunflower and safflower oils as healthy options. Of course, that doesn’t mean you should douse your food in oil with reckless abandon. “Adding oil to your diet without decreasing fat intake elsewhere also leads to increased calorie intake, which can result in weight gain,” she warns.
When making dietary choices, it’s best to take a holistic approach. “Focus less on demonizing or glamorizing a single food, and prioritize the bigger picture of your overall health and wellness,” Trisko says. “Eat a wide variety of minimally processed, whole foods, and stay active as often as possible.”