Is coconut oil poison? Professor Karin Michels, of the university’s Institute for Prevention and Tumor Epidemiology, says yes. She states coconut oil is “pure poison” and claims the health promotion around the popular oil is “absolute nonsense.”
Why is she making this statement and what is it based on?
Professor Michels presented a lecture (spoken in German) in which she claims the health concerns of coconut oil are related to the saturated fat content and risk for cardiovascular disease. She claims coconut oil is more dangerous than lard because fat may clog our arteries.
Oy vey (palm to hand emoji). Here we go again with the controversy on coconut oil.
Why does this keep popping up? We’re going to formally address this and clear up some confusion. Unfortunately, this statement was not based on any new science, research or data. It’s simply another inaccurate and overarching statement regarding the role saturated fat plays in cardiovascular health. Before we go further, let’s clarify something: Coconut oil is safe, healthy, and ok to eat. Coconut oil is not poison. Ok, now let’s get to the science.
If Professor Michels is basing her statements on the saturated fat in coconut oil, then we would assume research clearly indicates saturated fat causes heart attacks and heart disease, right? Except that it doesn’t.
Research has proven saturated fat does not cause heart disease(1). While saturated fats can increase LDL and HDL cholesterol, that’s only part of very large picture of health. In fact, saturated fat is excellent for increasing healthy HDL and actually has a positive impact on the LDL and HDL ratio. For many years, scientists have used high LDL cholesterol as a surrogate marker for heart disease risk but what is rarely discussed is that LDL cholesterol, by itself, is not inherently bad. It can, however, be dangerous in a couple instances:
When LDL cholesterol can be dangerous
- When LDL cholesterol is oxidized (damaged by free radicals that float around our bodies and in our environment). This is why you want to eat lots of colorful plants to increase protective antioxidants (veggies, herbs, etc.)
- When LDL cholesterol is small and dense it can cause more damage to your blood vessels. In fact, high levels of small dense LDL cholesterol is a good predictor of heart disease risk (2).
To get a true picture of one’s cholesterol and cardiovascular health, we need to look beyond basic LDL and HDL. Additional markers including LDL particle size and particle number need to be included (3-4). A basic cholesterol panel, though a starting place, doesn’t tell you enough about your cholesterol and cardiac health. For guidance on what labs to ask your doctor for, click here.
The benefits are plentiful and often individualized
- Better “good cholesterol”: In addition to raising LDL cholesterol, coconut oil also raises levels of our good HDL cholesterol.
- Metabolism: Coconut oil is made up of a combination of different sizes and types of fats: medium and long chain triglycerides. You may have heard of MCT oils (medium chain triglycerides). These are beneficial for us because MCTs can bypass normal circulation and go straight into energy production. Thus, it can improve metabolism by increasing “post-prandial (post-meal) thermogenesis.”
- Healthy gut: Coconut oil contains a combination of fatty acids, including caprylic, lauric and capric acids. Some of these fatty acids have antimicrobial activity that can help you get, and maintain, a healthy balance of gut bacteria (5).
- Unrefined coconut oil: the less processed an oil is, the better. You maintain the phytonutrients (plant nutrients) that are natural in the food, and you maintain the integrity of the oil (those good medium chain fats).
- Additional benefits of & uses of coconut oil here.
The Ongoing Debate
This won’t be the last time the headlines blast a story about the coconut oil or other foods with saturated fats. Per usual, the media will continue to grab stories that get your attention. Always read these headlines with some skepticism and do your own research!
Additional resources regarding saturated fat, LDL and cardiac health.