Is coconut oil pure poison, or not?
A few days ago the headline of the most read article in a Dutch newspaper said something like: ‘Away with the coconut oil myth,’ followed by a quote from a professor from Harvard University: ‘Coconut oil is pure poison’.
As a nutritionist and Master’s student in Nutrition & Health at Wageningen University, I’m always interested in what people have to say about nutrition. In my opinion, people often say more than that they know. And we actually don’t know that much, because nutrition science is extremely hard! But of course, newspapers are always keen for shocking headlines and definitely won’t wait for follow up studies to be done for a nuanced article, because that can take years.
I fully understand, for people who are not studying nutrition, that it is hard to know what to believe. Opinions about a certain product vary completely, there’s a marketing hype around all the so-called superfoods, we can buy food from all over the world and there are 3 foodies on every square meter with different opinions. But at the same time, we experience crowded hospitals, many people with allergies, burnouts and welfare diseases.
I watched the lecture the professor, Karin Michels, from Harvard University gave, it’s in German, you can watch it here [UPDATE: the video has been removed] and the reason she gives for coconut oil being ‘pure poison’ is that ‘it is a saturated fat, which blocks your blood vessels’. I’m not a doctor, but I know, with current scientific knowledge, that the link between saturated fat and risk of cardiovascular disease has been seriously called into question. But like I said before, food research is extremely complicated and fats alone is an immense topic to research. There are various types of fatty acid chains, and the body processes them in different ways. But every body is different. Also, those fats all work together with other nutrients, so where to start? But let’s just have a closer look at coconut oil because obviously, the ‘Coconut oil is pure poison’ statement confused people, so lets at least create some clarity by looking at some scientific studies.
IS SATURATED FAT BAD OR NOT?
Back in 2010, a meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease.
What happened is that the different kinds of fats we ate were out of balance. The ratio of saturated/unsaturated fats should be 1:1 and for a while, this was 7:1 in our common diets, and that’s not good. A nice rule of thumb is to eat the amount of fat the size of your thumb per meal, and in the right ratio: as many saturated fats as unsaturated fats (omega-3, -6 and -9) and twice as many omega-3’s as omega-6’s, and avoid trans fats at all costs, that’s all!
Often in research, all saturated fats are tarred with the same brush. It would take years and years for researchers to take them all apart and see what each individual type of fat does, to different groups of people with different kinds of lifestyles and with a different combination of other food types. There is increasing evidence to support that the total matrix of a food is more important than just its fatty acid content when predicting the effect of a food on, for example, coronary heart disease. Exclusion or inclusion of any one food or nutrient is something we should not do. And that brings us back to the coconut oil.
BACK TO COCONUT OIL
I like to start with a nice fact reported by the Demographic Yearbook of the United Nations in 1978 (since our professor went back in time, I’m going with her for a second): Sri Lanka had the lowest death rate from ischemic heart disease and is the only country, of all the countries giving reliable data, where coconut oil is the main dietary fat.
Also, most of the saturated fats in coconut oil are medium-chain fatty acids, ‘which are digested differently compared to long-chain fatty acids – they are absorbed directly into the blood and go straight to the liver, so in a healthy person, they tend to be used efficiently for energy and may be less likely to be stored as body fat. Long-chain fatty acids are absorbed via the lymphatic system.’ This says Dr Libby, a nutritional biochemist from New Zealand. This is backed up by an article in a medical journal about coconut and palm oil’s role in nutrition, health and national development. This is contrary to what professor Karin Michels says in her lecture, that all saturated fats are transported directly to your heart vessels.
‘One of those medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil (50%) is lauric acid.’ Lauric acid is one of the fatty acids found in breast milk. An article about different stages of lactation states that lauric acid ‘has antimicrobial effects and may play an important role in modulating body weight and preventing gut infection.’ Dr Libby says: ‘Lauric acid has potent antimicrobial properties, so coconut oil may help to protect against certain types of infections. There are also some studies that suggest that coconut oil may aid weight management.’
AND BACK TO YOU
So how can you know what to believe and what not? First of all, we think it is extremely important to listen to your body! Trust your intuition, use your common-sense! In our new program ‘Reset Your Health’ which will be launched soon, we teach you how to do that. And of course, there are always Google Scholar and Pubmed to do your own research!
We use coconut oil for sure but in moderation. I have a cow milk allergy, and coconut oil is a perfect substitution. It doesn’t oxidise easily at high temperatures, so it is a great oil to cook with, same as ghee, olive oil or avocado oil. I don’t really like cakes made with lots of coconut oil unless you eat a piece as small as the size of a bonbon. It’s way too filling, I like to stick to the ‘thumb of fat per meal’ rule.
I also use it in summertime as a sunscreen, but only when I’m going to be sunbathing for a maximum of 10 minutes (what I try to do every day when it is sunny). I won’t use it if I’m going to the beach for the day, I would use something ‘stronger’ then.
And concerning the different kinds of fat, always make sure to eat enough omega-3, which can be found in oily fish (salmon, herring, mackerel, sardines), linseed oil, vegetable oils like walnut oil, hemp oil, soy oil, fresh nuts especially walnuts and seeds. We tend to consume enough omega-6, and only those 2 are essential, meaning our bodies don’t make omega-3 and omega-6 themselves. Happily, our professor agrees on this point! Never heat those oils though, because then they will become trans fats.
And always remember, one food won’t change your health! It is way more important to eat a varied diet to eat in moderation, to use the right cooking methods, to eat whole foods and to listen to your body.
If you want to understand more of what to eat so that you will be at the right weight, have a radiant skin, are healthy, happy and have plenty of energy, if you want to reset your health, sign up for our newsletter now, because we will soon launch our new program, ‘Reset Your Health’, that does all that! ‘