How safe is coconut oil?

Last week’s headlines splashed the shocker ‘Coconut oil as unhealthy as beef fat and butter’.

Not so long ago, coconut oil was hailed as a cure-all for everything from dementia to dry skin and we were all rushing out to stockpile this ‘healthy’ fat. No wonder we end up dazed and confused about what foods are healthy.

When anything like this hits the headlines my first firstly thoughts turn to how the research was interpreted and secondly whether that research warrants further investigation.

So let’s take a closer look at the truth behind the headlines.

  • The study compared 7 research papers looking at different types of fat and the impact on cardiovascular risk.
  • One of the fats they looked at was coconut oil, which is 82% saturated fat. They looked at just a couple of research papers that found coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol and now advise against the use of coconut oil, with no reference to its effects on other cardiovascular markers such as HDL cholesterol or triglycerides (another significant marker for heart disease), not to mention its effects on inflammation, one of the biggest markers for heart disease.
  • They quote the well known fact that populations in East Asian and Mediterranean countries have very low rates of CVD and attribute this to their low saturated fat intake, with no mention of their high intake of plant based foods, oily fish, herbs and spices.
  • The report also suggests increasing your intake of vegetable oils, when in fact a recent study published in 2016 in the British Medical Journal reported ‘Available evidence from randomized controlled trials shows that replacement of saturated fat in the diet with linoleic acid effectively lowers serum cholesterol but does not support the hypothesis that this translates to a lower risk of death from coronary heart disease.’
  • In my opinion, it is nonsense to vilify any food. Instead we need to look at the diet as a whole.
  • Neither am I advocating a high fat diet, Instead use coconut oil in moderation for cooking, olive oil for dressing and drizzles and butter occasionally for spreading.
  • We know that a healthy diet based the on the Mediterranean model of plenty of antioxidant-rich vegetables some fruit, omega 3 rich oily fish, monounsaturated olive oil, pulses like beans and lentils and regular exercise is the key for heart health. Note that this is not the modern day Mediterranean diet packed with pasta and pizza!
  • For my money, the headlines should have focused on the real shocker from this report: ‘Trials that used mainly carbohydrates to replace saturated fat did not reduce cardiovascular disease’ and yet this has been the basis of a lot of nutritional advice we have heard since the 1970s.

    My conclusion, to stop the confusion:

    Keep using coconut oil, but like anything, don’t overdo it.