Poor coconut oil can’t catch a break. One day it’s the villain, next day it’s the superhero and next thing you know it is back to the doghouse. No wonder so many people are confused about whether to throw their coconut oil in the pan or in the trash. So let’s address the million dollar question – is coconut oil bad for you?
All it takes is a small paragraph with a few potentially controversial statements to make the internet go nuts with headlines like Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy or Coconut oil is out. These are the oils you should be using, experts say. But just how true are these statements? Let’s take a closer look.
American Heart Association Presidential Advisory
The AHA presidential advisory on coconut oil is based entirely on a single piece of the CDV puzzle – cholesterol levels. It compares the effect of coconut oil to other vegetable oils or reductions in saturated fat in raising total cholesterol and LDL cholesterol (LDL-C). However, the AHA cites only 3 studies as basis for its conclusion, one of them a review of 8 studies (which, by the way, includes one of the other 2 studies cited) (1). Ironically, one of them (2) concluded that:
no significant differences were observed in the effects of the 3 diets [palm oil, coconut oil and olive oil] on plasma total homocysteine (tHcy) and the inflammatory markers TNF-α, IL-1β, IL-6, and IL-8, high-sensitivity C-reactive protein, and interferon-γ.
The theory that inflammatory markers are the driving mechanisms of atherosclerosis (the inflammatory process in the arteries that leads to plaque formation) is widely accepted. In fact, numerous studies have linked inflammatory markers with increased incidence of heart disease (3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8) by contributing to and/or worsening plaque formation. Yet, the AHA is still putting cholesterol on the hot seat as if it were the sole perp in heart disease.
And even though cholesterol is not entirely innocent in this matter, there’s much more to the story than just numbers. Not only is the number and size of LDL particles a stronger predictor of cardiovascular disease risk than total cholesterol or LDL-C, but let’s also keep in mind that an individual can have normal cholesterol levels and still have an unfavorable lipid profile (more particles and/or smaller particles) (9, 10, 11). And guess what contributes to the formation of smaller, more atherogenic particles? Inflammation! You see the pattern?
It is tempting to place the blame on a single character and then draw flawed conclusions based on flawed premises such as:
buildup of cholesterol in the arteries leads to plaque formation = the more cholesterol the higher the risk of plaque formation = coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol = coconut oil increases chances of CVD = coconut oil is bad for you
…but in order to draw accurate conclusions and translate them into practical advice, we have to look at the full picture.
Even the authors of the review (12) cited on the AHA report acknowledge that:
Much of the research has important limitations that warrant caution when interpreting results, such as small sample size, biased samples, inadequate dietary assessment, and a strong likelihood of confounding. There is no robust evidence on disease outcomes, and most of the evidence is related to lipid profiles.
Need they say more?
Relevance of findings
So for argument’s sake, let’s take into consideration the findings that coconut oil does increase LDL-C. What does it mean for the average Joe? Well… it’s hard to say. Considering that the reported studies cited only a slight increase in LDL-C levels (ranging from 0.6 to 2.1 mg/dL), the relevance and applicability of these findings should be taken with a grain of salt. While the statistical significance is impacted if coconut oil raises LDL-C by 4.2 mmol/L compared to 3.9 mmol/L from safflower oil (12), in real life this finding is arguably negligible.
As I’ve discussed in a previous blog post, cholesterol is needed for numerous functions including the synthesis of hormones and vitamin D, synthesis of bile acids (to help us digest foods) and to protect cells from damage. To be abundantly clear, we all need optimal levels of cholesterol in order for our bodies to run smoothly – in fact, some studies even suggest that higher cholesterol levels may be protective (13, 14) particularly in the elderly (15), which is the most targeted population for reduction of cholesterol! One study even found that out of 136,905 hospitalizations from 2000 – 2006 associated with coronary artery disease (CAD) almost half of patients had normal LDL cholesterol (16).
These contrasting findings serve to highlight that nothing is as straightforward as it seems, urging us to carefully revisit this war on cholesterol.
Should you switch to vegetable oils?
The recommendation then naturally follows to substitute coconut oil with plant oils, such as olive oil, safflower, corn oil and soybean oil. The idea that vegetable oils are better than saturated fats (like coconut oil) stems from the findings that they lower total cholesterol and LDL-C (as cited by the AHA), so they presumably reduce our overall risk of heart disease. But as I previously outlined, that’s only a small piece of the puzzle.
While olive oil has been shown to possess numerous health properties, including decreasing the risk of CVD, due to its monounsaturated fatty acid and antioxidant profile (17, 18, 19), other vegetable oils have been linked to increased inflammation, which actually increases the risk for CVD, as previously discussed.
The link between vegetable oils and inflammation is attributed to its higher content of omega 6’s (pro-inflammatory fatty acids) which are more easily oxidized, thus promoting inflammation. That’s without even considering the fact that the majority of these oils are partially hydrogenated (trans fats!) and heavily processed further contributing to a less than ideal inflammatory profile in the body (20, 21).
So… is coconut oil bad for you? NO! While you shouldn’t be pouring down coconut oil like it’s water in a desert, moderate amounts in cooking, baking, and dressings would most likely do you no harm. But you know what IS bad for you?
to have a diet high in refined sugar, processed foods, conventional meat and stress, and low in fruits and vegetables, physical activity, adequate sleep and fun!
In the grand scheme of things, coconut oil is literally just a tablespoon in your oversized plate.