A couple of weeks ago, a Harvard professor came forth claiming that coconut oil is “pure poison!” My inbox was full of questions from clients asking if they should stop consuming it.
Here is what we know to be true about coconut oil and its makeup. First, the latest science definitely supports moderate fat consumption (~ 20 to 50% of total calories per day) and moderate saturated fat consumption (say 10 to 15% of total calories). That means one can easily overdo it on coconut oil. For example, given a 2,000 calorie a day diet with no other sources of saturated fats, consuming a mere 3 tablespoons will get you to 15% of total calories from saturated fats. This is one reason why I advise varying the fats you eat. Coconut oil is 80% saturated fat and pork lard is 39% saturated fat. Remember when lard was demonized and Crisco replaced it? (P.S. Don't eat Crisco - like EVER!)
Second, coconut oil’s fatty acids are mostly medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are shorter fat molecules that the saturated fats we get from animal foods. The length of the chain makes a big difference in how fat is metabolized. Other fatty acids, like those in animal meats, are long chain. MCTs are more easily metabolized by the body, which is why they’re used in baby formulas and to nourish hospital patients. As such, they have very different biological effects, including plenty of beneficial ones like improving gut barrier health and reducing inflammation. MCTs are digested and absorbed through the liver, and are available for quick energy. Most importantly, studies that pit coconut oil against butter, olive oil, sunflower oil etc. generally show that coconut oil is the most effective at raising our HDL "good" cholesterol, while having minimal to no effect on LDL "bad" cholesterol. And animals studies show that MCTs, coconut polyphenols and coconut phytosterols all lower CVD risk - good reason to source high quality oil like an unrefined, virgin coconut oil. There are extremely healthy societies in other parts of the world that consume coconut oil as their primary fat on a daily basis. But they also eat more plant-based meals, move their bodies more regularly and don’t eat as much processed, sugary foods as we do in the US.
Lastly, we have to consider the science of why we became so afraid of saturated fats in the first place. We have the diet-heart hypothesis of 1953 by Ancel Keys to thank for this. His hypothesis proposed that dietary fats, including cholesterol, cause heart disease. He used his bias to prove his theory and left out copious amounts of data from his research that now shows there is no correlation between fat consumption and dying from heart disease. New research confirms there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD. In fact, in Dr. Campbell-McBride’s book, Put Your Heart in Your Mouth, she shares hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that disprove his hypothesis. I highly recommend you read this book if anyone in your family has heart disease or is on a statin.
I don't agree that coconut oil is "pure poison". But, that doesn't mean that I think we should be eating spoonfuls straight out of the jar. Coconut oil is a great high-heat cooking oil, perfect for stir-fries and pan sautéing. But, I also like using ghee or clarified butter for high heat cooking too. I use extra virgin olive oil or flaxseed for salad dressings and some nut oils for certain recipes. On the never list should be soybean, canola, corn, cottonseed, and hydrogenated oils. These are mostly known as "vegetable oils." Stear far away from these!
Most importantly, limiting your sugar intake along with refined flour can improve your health immensely. Inflammation is the root of CVD and it can be prevented with the right dietary and lifestyle protocols.