The Coconut Oil Debate

Recently, coconut oil has come under scrutiny and fallen from its “healthy food” pedestal. The catalyst for this scrutiny was the release of the American Heart Association’s presidential advisory, which confirmed its previous stance, that it has had since the 1960’s, that saturated fats should be limited and replaced by unsaturated fats. However, it’s a single paragraph from the presidential advisory that is attracting most of the media’s attention, which has to do with coconut oil. First, I’ll briefly summarize what was said regarding coconut oil and then I’ll explain my takeaways.

The American Heart Association’s Stance on Coconut Oil

The AHA’s presidential advisory had the following to say about coconut oil. First of all, the point was made that a recent survey showed that while only 37% of nutritionists considered coconut oil as a “healthy food” that a surprising 72% of the American public rated it as one. This might explain the AHA’s motive for calling out coconut oil specifically and attributing some of the public’s confusion regarding coconut oil to the clever marketing of food companies. It goes on to conclude that since coconut oil has been shown to increase LDL (low density lipoprotein – the bad cholesterol), a cause of CVD (cardiovascular disease), and lacks evidence for beneficial nutritional attributes that they advise against its use. They reached this conclusion based on the following:

  • Coconut oil is composed of 82% saturated fat.
  • A study comparing the effects of coconut oil, safflower oil, and butter on LDL cholesterol showed that both butter and coconut oil raised LDL levels more than safflower oil, and butter had a greater effect on raising LDL than coconut oil.
  • Another study showed that coconut oil increased LDL as compared to olive oil.
  • A systematic review of 7 controlled trials (including the 2 previously mentioned) all found that coconut oil increased LDL (significantly in 6 of these studies).

My Takeaways

  • First of all, I don’t agree with categorizing food as “healthy food” because any food eaten in excess is not healthy.
  • The AHA is using 4 core randomized control trials to build their recommendation and these trials might be the best currently available but still have room for improvement such as larger sample sizes and less confounding factors. Therefore, let’s do more research!
  • Variety is the spice of life – and the key to a balanced diet (in my opinion). Therefore, consuming both saturated and unsaturated fats helps provide variety and flavor to your diet. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for American suggests limiting saturated fats to less than 10% of total calories. Therefore, I don’t think it’s necessary to completely cut out coconut oil if it can fit within these guidelines.
  • I believe in a personalized approach to nutrition. Your dietary preferences should also play a role in your nutrition decisions but you have to be flexible. If you love whole fat yogurt, then keep it in your diet but be prepared to give up beef or coconut oil if those items are less important to you. I think it’s more important to look at foods within the context of a whole meal as opposed to isolating and critiquing a single item of food. As always, try not to get swept up in food trends and consume one item or group of foods in abundance.

I often use coconut oil in smoothies and to sauté shredded cabbage or prepare a veggie stir fry. Based on this article I might try avocado oil as a replacement in my smoothies but I enjoy the coconut flavor it gives to my shredded cabbage and stir fry so I plan to continue to keep coconut oil in my pantry. I’ve also heard that it’s a great moisturizer for your skin and hair. That’s my take, now I want to hear yours!



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