It seems the whole world has gone nuts over the Great Coconut Oil Debate of 2017.
The debate was sparked by a new advisory from the American Heart Association that strongly discourages us from including coconut oil in our diets, because it’s very high in heart-unhealthy saturated fat.
“Several studies found that coconut oil — which is predominantly saturated fat and widely touted as healthy — raised LDL cholesterol in the same way as other saturated fats found in butter, beef fat and palm oil,” the American Heart Association says in a news release.
The association notes that LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol is a major cause of artery-clogging plaque and cardiovascular disease.
So is coconut oil healthy, or is it as bad as the American Heart Association makes it out to be?
Opinions are almost as varied as the kinds of saturated fats found in our food. Here’s just one of those opinions, courtesy of cardiologist Dr. Morton Tavel, clinical professor emeritus at the Indiana University School of Medicine: “There are no hard rules on its consumption, but sensible limitation is the prudent choice, especially if there are alternative choices.”
In the Heart Association advisory, researchers included a chart pinpointing the saturated fat composition of 15 types of oil and fat.
At 82 percent, coconut oil ties with palm kernel oil for the highest amount of saturated fat, according to the chart. That compares with 63 percent for butter, 50 percent for beef fat, 49 percent for palm oil (not the same as palm kernel oil) and 39 percent for lard.
At the other end of the spectrum are one type of safflower oil (6 percent saturated fat), canola oil (10 percent), sunflower oil (10 percent), corn oil (13 percent) and olive oil (14 percent).
While the Heart Association research sounds the alarm over coconut oil, Harvard University’s medical school notes that coconut oil boosts HDL, or “good,” cholesterol. “Fat in the diet, whether it’s saturated or unsaturated, tends to nudge HDL levels up, but coconut oil seems to be especially potent at doing so,” Harvard says.
And, according to USA Today, some proponents have latched onto research that appeared to tout coconut oil as a potential weight-loss tool. But the methodology behind that research has been called into question and the conclusion of that research has been disproven by subsequent studies.
New Jersey physician Dr. Michael Pickert, a health care consultant, believes the bad aspects of coconut oil outweigh any of the good.
“There are few pros for coconut oil, no matter what the enthusiasts say. The cons are just too well established to consider another point of view,” Pickert says.
He goes on to say the hyper-inflated value of coconut oil stems from “another misguided attempt by non-scientists and other fanatics to promote a product that has been proven to be harmful for your health.”
Heart Association researchers side with Pickert on this point. The association’s advisory cites a survey showing that 72 percent of Americans rated coconut oil as a “healthy food,” compared with 37 percent of nutritionists. Why the disconnect? The researchers blame it on “the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press.”
Stair, a New York physician who’s a health and wellness consultant, acknowledges that consuming a lot of saturated fats, such as coconut oil, has been tied to a heightened risk of heart disease.
“However, in recent years the link between saturated fat, LDL cholesterol and heart disease is under scrutiny,” Stair says.
Stair points to evidence suggesting that we should shift the focus on risk factors surrounding cardiovascular disease to inflammation and eating patterns, while other evidence indicates we should target insulin resistance and hyperglycemia more so than saturated fat. Still other evidence says VLDL, the remnants of cholesterol, matters more than LDL does, according to Stair.
“All of that said, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to limit saturated fats in our diet, based on what we know now,” Stair says.
When it comes to coconut oil, the “toxicity,” as Stair calls it, lies in how much you consume. Minimal to moderate consumption is fine, she says, as long as that accompanies a healthy, balanced diet as well as an active lifestyle.
“My opinion is that the latest war on coconut oil is an example of reductionism, a too-often phenomenon in the health industry that borders on paranoia,” Stair says. “Reductionism is the dangerous simplification of a complex condition, system or idea. Sensational nutritionists and wellness gurus are quick to label food items as ‘super’ and others as ‘bad.’ That’s absurd.”
Registered dietitian Keith-Thomas Ayoob, associate clinical professor at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine at New York’s Yeshiva University, agrees with Stair that coconut oil can be consumed in moderation.
“I never tell people to swear off any food. It can always fit in,” Ayoob says. “The issue is how much and how often.”
Ayoob says there’s nothing to really recommend coconut oil over, say, extra virgin olive oil; but the issue is more complex than that.
“We treat all fats as though they function as an isolated substance in the body. They don’t necessarily,” he says. “Butter and cheese have the same type of fat makeup, but the saturated fat in cheese is also bound up in a fat-protein matrix.”
In that matrix, cheese can be a great source of protein. For instance, 1 ounce of mozzarella contains about 8 grams of protein along with 3 grams of saturated fat, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. One teaspoon of butter, however, delivers no protein and 2 grams of saturated fat.
Regarding coconut oil, Ayoob recommends swapping it out for foods high in heart-healthy unsaturated fat. In the oil department, that would include olive, canola and safflower oils.
What about consuming coconut oil in moderation?
“Anytime I hear the word ‘moderation,’ I get queasy because the word is vague,” Ayoob says. “If it has no specifics and no one agrees on what moderation is for coconut oil, then we can’t make recommendations about it, and the issue turns into a free-for-all.”
Pickert is more blunt in his take on saturated fats — coconut oil or any other type — and on consuming them in moderation.
“Saturated fats in any form are just plain bad,” he says. “The strong correlation between saturated fats and heart disease is unambiguous.”
Pickert adds: “Though moderation is always a desirable goal, it is rarely realistic. I would sooner swear off the saturated oils than recommend someone use them in moderation.”