Coconut Oil: "Super food" or "Poison"?


Here we go again. A Harvard teacher said "coconut oil is poison" and lit up the internet. It's a replay of last summer's hoopla, when USA Today published an article saying coconut oil has never been healthy.

Just like in politics, proclamations about the goodness or evilness of foods are also becoming increasingly polarized. "It's a super food!"  "No! It's poison!" 

Each side increasingly implying that the opposite position comes from dangerous people.

So how about we go back to scientific facts and sensible thinking and see what we find?

#1 Coconut oil IS in fact mostly saturated fat.

Scientists who say it's bad, present this primary argument:

  • Science shows that saturated fats raise cholesterol: 
    The Dietary Fats & Cardiovascular Disease advisory states that a review of evidence shows that saturated fats increase LDL cholesterol (the so-called "bad" cholesterol). This has been the long-standing position of the American Heart Association since the 1960's. And there are lots of studies that back up this conclusion that saturated fats raise cholesterol.

Scientists who say it's healthy, state this primary argument:

  • Science shows that saturated fats do NOT increase heart disease mortality:
    Even though saturated fats appear to raise cholesterol, a growing body of research shows that this does NOT translate into increase heart disease mortality. This study is just the latest one, published in the Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in July 2018.

#2 At the heart of the issue lies the cholesterol theory of heart disease.

Over the past 10-15 years, there has been growing scientific evidence showing that lowering cholesterol does not lower heart disease rates nor heart disease mortality. And you can read very well documented articles here:

#3 The "French Paradox"

The so-called "French Paradox" is what nutrition researchers and doctors call the observable fact that the French diet contradicts their scientific conclusions about saturated fat. Because if the saturated-fat-heart-disease premise is true, then the French should be dropping dead of heart attacks and strokes above everyone else... but their cardiovascular disease rates have been consistently lower than other countries whose populations consume fewer saturated fats.

And yet, what is also true is that the French eat LOADS of fresh vegetables and they shop for them on a daily basis. They eat food cooked from scratch (minimal processed food). In general, they don't eat boxed cereals, canned food, TV dinner-like foods, etc. They don't drink soda as a norm.

What the French have is a pretty good formula for a (mostly) anti-inflammatory diet. They also have healthy beliefs about food. They do NOT eat with guilt nor punish themselves over food.

    #4 Don't be an extremist. The dose makes the poison.

    I've always recoiled at extreme diet dogma. "Everyone has to be vegan!"  "Everyone should eat Paleo!" "Grains are poison" "Meat is poison!" 

    In food, the dose makes the poison. You can kill some people with a peanut. Some people react adversely to tomatoes, strawberries, bread, etc. Are these foods poison? They definitely are to them! 

    I think the evidence shows that coconut oil is far from being "poison." Despite all of the evidence of saturated fats raising cholesterol, the science also shows that the cholesterol view of heart-disease is also quite flawed. 

    #5 Applying common sense

    There are a few things we can learn from the French and their approach to food:

    • There is no single food that causes X 
    • The sum-total of your lifestyle is what matters most -- including your beliefs and your emotions.
    • Shopping for fresh produce frequently is key
    • Staying within a healthy weight also helps
    • ENJOYING your food is essential! 
    • Food should come from nature, not a factory. (It stands to reason that less-processed is likely more healthful. Squeeze a coconut and you get an oily product. Squeeze a kernel of corn... not so oily.) 
    • Eating locally and in season tends to be a good foundation for health. (Unless you live in the tropics, coconut oil and avocado oil are not local. Eat the majority of your food from local sources.)  

    Be more like the French!

    Eat your coconut oil and your butter. Have some french fries and chocolate mousse from time to time. Drink your wonderful glass of wine. Eat some really good cheese with cured meats sometimes. And don't freak out about it.

    But also like the French, eat fresh, EXCELLENT quality food. Savor your food. Enjoy it. Eat lots of vegetables in season. And when you eat fresh food that comes from nature, there's a good chance you'll be lowering your inflammation.

    And if you want to read another EXCELLENT, well annotated scientific article on the goodness of coconut oil, here it is on GreenMed Info.