Is Coconut Oil Still Healthy?

Thursday Sep 14 | BY |
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Coconut

Recently, the American Health Association updated their advice on heart disease to include coconut oil in the “avoid” category.

While I don’t take my nutrition advice from the AHA, this recent update didn’t surprise me a bit.

This headline provoked an outrage from the Paleo and low-carb community, who are usually proponents of coconut oil (even though there’s nothing “paleo” about coconut oil).

Many wrote articles with a title like “Coconut Oil Is Still Healthy,” challenging the AHA claims.

Coconuts Are Healthy, But Coconut Oil Has Never Been Healthy

Coconut oil has been around for a long time. When I first started eating a vegetarian and raw food diet over 20 years ago, coconut oil was promoted as a health food by many authors and companies.

The dubious claims around coconut oil are not new. For some, it’s a quasi miracle-food.

I never bought the coconut oil hype.

First, coconut oil is a refined food — very far from the natural coconut. It’s equivalent to refined sugar: taking a whole food and refining it to only one component: its oil.

The calories in coconut oil are 100% fat, and refined, with no fiber.

I do think that there’s a place for coconuts is the human diet, but it’s in their natural form. Drinking the water of green coconuts, eating the young coconut meat, and even occasionally eating the fattier old coconut is fine.

So the first problem we face with coconut is it’s a refined product. It’s an oil and the problem with eating oils is the same no matter what kind of oil we choose. I reviewed extensively the benefits of not eating vegetable oils in this article.

But compared to olive oil, coconut oil has an additional problem.

It’s full of saturated fat.

One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fats. On the other hand, a tablespoon of olive oil contains 1.9 grams of saturated fats.

What’s the problem?

It can raise your cholesterol levels.

Now, it’s true that coconut oil contains some medium chain triglycerides – a type of shorter-chain saturated fat that isn’t as bad as the one found in meat and dairy.

But… Coconut oil contains only 10% of MCTs.

The rest is the cholesterol-raising fats that raise cholesterol levels (lauric, myristic acids).

Who’s a Saturated Fat Denier?

There’s a movement of misinformation on the Internet, where Paleo bloggers are trying to prove that there is no link between heart disease and cholesterol or saturated fats.

These bloggers went berserk with the “coconut oil is unhealthy” news for this very reason.

But to be clear, for them to have a point, they should prove that:

1) Elevated cholesterol levels are NOT an important risk factor for heart disease.
2) Consuming foods high in saturated fats do not raise cholesterol levels.

These two statements go together, but sometimes our bloggers only try to “debunk” one of them.

It’s easy to make a point that seems credible that such and such food does not cause heart disease when you consider individual studies.

But the real questions are:

– Does this food raise cholesterol level?
– Should we be worried about elevated cholesterol levels in the first place?

Paleo bloggers rarely try to debunk the latter. They know their science is shaky. Very few of them will go as far as to recommend to people to have elevated cholesterol levels (but some, sadly, do!).

They’ll look at some individual studies to prove that such and such food does not raise the type of cholesterol we have to worry about: LDL.

Paleo bloggers will try to confuse you with gray areas like “particle size” to try to avoid the real question.

But when we look at their “science” more closely, we find serious problems.

In his update on coconut oil, Chris Kresser writes:

“…the AHA report only discusses LDL cholesterol (LDL-C). One study found that of 136,905 coronary artery disease hospitalizations, almost half of patients presented with normal LDL-C (11).”

When we look at the reference provided, we find a contradiction.
study1

The authors write: These findings may provide further support for recent guideline revisions with even lower LDL goals.

The study is quoted to imply something completely different.

When in fact it roughly states (I’m paraphrasing):

Our guidelines are so high that half of the patients have LDL levels that are considered “normal,” yet we think that the guidelines are not strict enough and should be even lower.

In reality, only 17.6% of participants had LDL levels under 70 mg/dl, which is considered a healthy number. But, this was their number when they were admitted to the study. If they had maintained those numbers throughout their lives, they would most likely not have developed heart disease.

Chris Kresser continues: 

Preliminary studies comparing lipid profiles after subjects followed a low-carb, high-fat diet and a high-carb, low-fat diet suggest that saturated fat does not increase LDL-P (15).

Let’s take a closer look.

In the full text of the study (not the abstract), at it says that the participants started out with a total cholesterol level of around 228 mg/dl (when you convert from metric).

First, we have a problem because this is a weight loss study! Any type of weight loss is going to improve cholesterol scores.

But even in this study, the authors note something interesting.

study2

You can look at this passage in more details, but I will summarize it:

1) They say that the “Very Low Carb Diet” causes an increase in cholesterol level.
2) But this is somewhat compensated by the weight loss.
3) If someone loses a lot of weight the net effect might be neutral.

They do NOT conclude that “saturated fats do not increase LDL-P” but reference another study that may suggest it.

However, looking at this particular study reveals several problems:

1) The participants started out with very high cholesterol levels.
2) Their diet increased their cholesterol scores even though they were losing weight. When the weight loss stop, their cholesterol levels will rise even more.

Is Coconut Oil Healthy or Not?

By examining just one paragraph by one author, I have shown you how twisted the research is and how looking at the real studies behind shows the exact opposite of the point the author wanted to make.

Because the real question to ask is:

Is coconut oil healthy?

We’ve already seen that it’s a refined product. It’s 100% fat and shares problems with other vegetable oils.

But, we are also worried that it may increase our cholesterol scores — which it will most likely do. And we do not buy the “science” of Paleo bloggers who tried to prove that saturated fats do not raise cholesterol.

You don’t need to read any study to prove this to yourself:

Simply eat a low-fat, plant-based diet for three weeks. Test your cholesterol. It should technically be quite good. Then eat coconut oil for three weeks, and recheck your cholesterol. Guess what will happen? I won’t ruin the surprise for you, but I’m sure you can guess by now.

One key point is that once cholesterol levels are very high, eating more saturated fats will likely not raise them further. That’s usually the fatal flaw in most studies.

But when they do studies with people with healthy cholesterol scores, they invariably find that diets high in saturated fats do raise them. Someone with a high cholesterol count would be well advised to cut saturated fats from their diet.

I’m Not Done Yet

Before I end this topic, I want to look at a common claim made in articles about coconut oil, which is that it improves lipid profiles.

Two studies are often quoted.

The first study was done on rats. Yuck. I could not access the full text, but it looks like they compared it to palm oil. So it may well be that it compares favorably. However, that’s not our issue. Our issue is: would someone with a healthy diet benefit from eating coconut oil and would this affect their blood lipid profile?

The second study was done on a small group of women.

They were all obese and were randomized into two groups of twenty participants. One group took a small amount of soybean oil at each meal, and another took coconut oil.

The soybean oil saw an increase in LDL while the coconut oil group saw no change.

This article seems sketchy. It is quoted in almost every single article promoting coconut oil. It comes from Brasil and and I had to pay $39.95 plus tax to access the full text.

What I found was extremely disappointing.

The subjects were obese women with a BMI of around 31. Only 20 women were included in each group. And we can be very doubtful of the tracking methods used, since very little information is provided.

study3

My observations: 

They had a “normal high” cholesterol of around 190 mg/dl and 110 of LDL.

The group taking the soybean oil saw a rise in LDL (from 108 to 134) and the coconut oil group seems to also show a small increase (from 112 to 116).

To me, what this study shows is that soybean oil is detrimental, and for some reason appears to be worse than coconut oil. We have very little information on the diet of the participant during the study. We don’t even know their saturated fat intake!

Consuming the coconut oil certainly didn’t help their cholesterol scores, and it didn’t enable them to lose much weight. After 12 weeks both groups barely lost 2 and a half pounds! Based on this study alone, this wouldn’t be a diet a cardiologist would recommend to their patients.

This flawed study proves very little, and we have much better reasons to believe that coconut oil does raise cholesterol levels. For example, this more extensive study reviews almost everything published on the topic:

Their conclusion?

study4

The authors admit that most research done on coconut oil is of very poor quality. That’s why they didn’t even include the Brazilian study I covered.

But more importantly, they write:

No convincing evidence that consumption of coconut oil, as opposed to consumption of unsaturated oils, led to improved lipid profiles and a decreased risk of CVD was discovered during the literature search. Overall, the weight of the evidence to date suggests that replacing coconut oil with cis unsaturated fats would reduce CVD risk.

So in other words, they say that: even if it’s not bad for you, it’s certainly not good for your heart. And we have much better evidence that replacing this type of fat with healthier types found in foods like avocados and olives would reduce heart disease risk.

What Other Experts Say

It’s no mystery that coconut oil does raise cholesterol levels. Even authors like Dr. Gabriel Cousens and Dr. Mercola admitted so, in the Great Health Debate put together by Kevin Gianni.

What they will say is that it’s sometimes a good idea to raise cholesterol levels when they are “too low.”

I’ve already covered the fallacy that cholesterol levels can be “too low” in my article “Can Your Cholesterol Levels Be Too Low?

The answer is no. Optimal levels of LDL cholesterol are below 70 mg/dl and some say even below 60 mg/dl.

The reason this myth exists that your cholesterol can be too low is because low cholesterol is seen in some stages of disease. But this is association, not causation.

For example, in some cancers, cholesterol levels drop sharply. However, this is the disease causing the cholesterol levels to drop, not the other way around.

Conclusions

It’s easy to cherry-pick studies to make a point, especially when you only look at the abstract and not the full text. We could do this all day.

The bottom line on coconut oil is:

  1. It’s a refined product. It’s 100% fat.
  2. There’s evidence to think it will raise your cholesterol, like most other foods high in saturated fats.
  3. There are much better foods to eat, like whole coconuts!

If you do choose to coconut oil, I would again encourage you to occasionally test your cholesterol and try a low-fat, whole food plant-based diet to compare.

Frederic Patenaude

Frederic Patenaude has been an important influence in the raw food and natural health movement since he started writing and publishing in 1998, first by being the editor of Just Eat an Apple magazine. He is the author of over 20 books, including The Raw Secrets, the Sunfood Cuisine and Raw Food Controversies. Since 2013 he’s been the Editor-in-Chief of Renegade Health.

Frederic loves to relentlessly debunk nutritional myths. He advocates a low-fat, plant-based diet and has had over 10 years of experience with raw vegan diets. He lives in Montreal, Canada.

23 COMMENTS ON THIS POST

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  1. Daniele says:

    I thought, from my readings, that coconut oil ‘became’ healthier because it is now processed with a different method than it used to. In any case, the coconut oil I buy is unrefined (organic, unrefined, cold-pressed). It does say it has, per serving (1 tbsp) 13g of saturated fat, but also says 0g of cholesterol. So, it is all a bit confusing to me.
    Oil, of any kind, I believe should not be consumed in high quantities, and if you do, you should consume a lot of the good cholesterol kind (fish oils) to compensate, right?
    I don’t know anybody who would consume coconut oil by the spoon (if you have ever tried, it is disgusting), but it is good for cooking at high temperature apparently. I don’t fry foods, but I put a tablespoon of coconut oil in my smoothies (and I do take 1250mg of Omega3 each day, have for years, even before I heard of coconut oil). I eat salmon once to twice a week.
    Am I at risk of increased bad cholesterol?
    The discussion on coconut oil at this stage may be more of a purely medical/technical one.
    Butter is bad for you, but I still consume butter, just in a very reasonable way.
    Coconut oil is bad for you, should I toss the jar out, I don’t think so.
    We do need oil for our body, for our brain, I think what the AHA should do is produced and distribute a chart with all oils, their various fat levels, cholesterol levels, the temperature at which it oxides, etc. So, we can make informed decision when consuming oils.

    • Hi Daniele,
      The idea of “unrefined” coconut oil (or any oil) is kind of an oxymoron. Oil is a refined food by definition. Also, no plant food contains cholesterol. You can get all the benefits from essential fats in whole foods.

    • Christian says:

      (…)Butter is bad for you, but I still consume butter(…)…………….Butter is bad for you if the cows is eating grains but if the cows are 100% on the pasture, it is good for you. Grains (mainly corn and soya) screwed up the precious ration of the omega 6 vs 3. It is just abominable to give grains to a herbivore animal. Do not believe me but make your research.

  2. Fay says:

    You are very wrong on coconut oil. I have been using coconut oil over 20yrs and my HDL has been over 70. So do your research on the oil. There are companies that sells coconut oil that uses-compress method Example Wildernees family natural. Lot fat contributes to heart disease. The brain and heart needs healthy fat. Stop giving coconut oil a bad rap.

  3. Clare says:

    I am “new” to coconut oil. My cholesterol is fine. The amazing effect on me has been dramatic reduction in inflamation , especially in my right knee.

  4. Dave says:

    Good job Frederic – Just like Dr. Fuhrman says – coconut oil is a processed food, which means that any nutritional benefits from the coconut itself are lost when it is processed. Thank you for an excellent job helping to debunk the coconut oil myth.

  5. Daniela says:

    Frederic, I go by your wise article on all oils that you wrote previously. It was really a big “aha” moment for me. My question is: Would you recommend coconut oil as part of dental hygiene? Thank you.

  6. Thank you for your very informative article about coconut oil. I had an AHA moment after reading it, as my cholesterol levels have gone up recently compared to the previous years, and I have been consuming organic, cold pressed unrefined coconut oil for the past 5 years, thinking that I was doing my body good, but not knowing that it may be the reason why my LDL levels have elevated. I will be cutting back my consumption of coconut oil to see if my LDL levels will go down.

  7. Frank says:

    What about using coconut oil as a body moisturizer? I use it after every shower.

  8. steve ryder says:

    what about cold pressed virgin coconut oil,not coconut palm oil,soybeans are so GMO they should not even be mentioned,anytime i read something like this ,i really have to know the source.it’s akin to the soft drink council saying high fructose corn sweetener is nutritionally beneficial

  9. Maggie says:

    Wow,what can i said,this is crazy, i consume Nutiva coconut oil. i buy it by gallons, i use it in my skin ,hair and cokking , but now this, Oh my Lord i’m confused now

    • Gunda Victoria Chapman says:

      Bottom line is we can get away with a lot when we are in your 30’s and 40’s and even your 50’s. But we will suffer the consequences eventually and will have to get off that high horse because the truth is oil is a very unhealthy refined food.

  10. Brad Hylan says:

    Hi Frederic,
    It’s so confusing.

    I question the relationship of cholesterol and arterial blockage.

    I have a cholesterol level under 150. I am 6’1″ and weigh 170 pounds. I take no medications. I eat a low fat, 90% raw diet. I eat mostly vegetables and a little fruit. I DO NOT eat very many avocados, nuts or seeds. I use a Norwalk Juicer and only make green juices. I am 63 years old and I have been eating this was for approximately 25 years. I feel great. I have lots of energy. Most people guess my age wrong by at least 10 to 20 years.

    I had a calcium index test and I was showing the beginning of arterial calcifications. It’s very upsetting.

    My wife on the other hand has cholesterol of over 300. She is 62 years old. She eats a lot of meat and fatty foods. She drinks at least 2 glasses of wine daily. She has high blood pressure. Other than High Blood pressure, my wife is extremely healthy and full of energy. Her resting pulse is 42. She had a calcium index test and I was concerned what we would find. Her score was PERFECT!!! Her arteries are 100% clean. How do you explain that.

    I have been doing a little research and it appears that inflammation may be more of a problem than cholesterol in regards to cardiac problems. Also, is it possible that perhaps there is no one diet that is good for everyone. I would be interested in your comments.
    Thank you,
    Brad Hylan

    • Hi Brad. It would be inappropriate for me to guess anything about your health based on what you wrote. If I were you, I would direct your question to a plant-based doctor who can personally screen you and discuss your blood test (and other test) results with you. But based on what you wrote:
      1) It doesn’t sound like your arteries are in such bad shape. After all, almost everybody in the Western world has some level of atherosclerosis, going back to childhood.
      2) Perhaps the Calcium Index Test isn’t the most accurate test for predicting health outcomes?
      3) Inflammation can only occur in the presence of excess LDL cholesterol.
      4) The important number is not total cholesterol but LDL, which should be under 70. (Some say 80).
      5) You say that you eat 90% raw and low fat, but “mostly vegetables little fruit.” That is not possible. 90% raw and “little fruit” would mean that you would need to eat a lot of nuts and seeds to get calories. Raw vegetables have almost no usable calories so either you need to eat a lot of fruit or a lot of avocados, nuts and seeds to get calories.
      6) You describe your wife with seemingly perfect health and arteries that are “100% clean.” I would doubt that given her cholesterol score and the fact that she has high blood pressure. Hypertension in itself is the most important indicator of health, much more important than cholesterol! So you can’t say that “other than high blood pressure” a person is extremely healthy. Blood pressure predicts future health outcomes more than any other indicator.

      How is YOUR blood pressure? I’m assuming it’s very good. And your weight is excellent. Based on everything you wrote, I would worry more about your wife than you. But these are just my very limited comments, more like “clues,” based on the bit you wrote.

  11. Alan says:

    I stand with Dr. David Pearmutter board certified neurologist, Dr. Mercola MD both are board certified MD’s Not a self proclaimed health practitioner. We need LDL and HDL why di you think we have such a memory dis-ease epidemic in north America?? Stupid Statin Drugs are killing are brains..

    • Alan, both Dr. Pearlmutter and Mercola are outliers with somewhat crackpot theories and absolutely no research published to their names in heart disease reversal. Dr. Esselstyn and Ornish have both published studies proving that heart disease can be arrested and even partly reversed on a no-cholesterol, low-fat plant-based diet. Read the book “Cholesterol and Beyond” which is NOT a vegan book nor is it written by vegan authors, to understand where the scientific consensus actually is on the topic. No one is denying that the body needs some LDL and HDL to function. It’s the excess (of LDL) that’s the problem, and I’d be hard-pressed to find any reputable doctor who can prove otherwise! The alternative to statin drugs is the right nutritional approach.

  12. Bethany says:

    Thank you Frederic. I feel better eating no oils and I’m glad to know that I don’t need coconut oil to be healthy. The health and diet info. out there is enough to make your head spin. I appreciate your research and sensible advice.

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