Coconut Oil is Poison!

If you’ve been following the news about coconut oil, you might be a little confused on if it’s a miracle food, capable of helping you lose weight and lower your cholesterol? Or is it filled with saturated fat that you should immediately cut from your diet?

Karin Michels, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, went so far as to call coconut oil “pure poison”. If you’ve got questions, you’re not alone. Lots of people have turned to Google to get the scoop on this highly-debated oil. Below, you’ll find my answers to some of the top-searched queries.

Does coconut oil help you lose weight?

Maybe, but the research is very limited. One study, published in the journal Lipids, tested the effects of consuming about one ounce of either soybean oil or coconut oil over a 12-week period in women with abdominal obesity. The ladies were instructed to follow a balanced diet designed to maintain weight, and walk for 50 minutes a day. Both groups lost weight, but only the coconut oil eaters experienced a reduction in their waist measurements. Another more recent study in older men and women with heart disease also found that those given coconut oils experienced a reduction in both their body weight and waistline.

Intriguing research, but it is scant. And it’s important to note that not every study that asked people to add coconut oil resulted in weight loss or reduced belly fat.

Even if there is an effect, it doesn’t mean that downing coconut oil, without making any other changes to your eating pattern, will suddenly cause weight to fall off your frame. It also doesn’t mean that you should exclusively switch to coconut oil.

Is coconut oil good for your heart?

Probably not, but there are caveats. In both of the studies mentioned above, the coconut oil eaters saw a boost in their levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. Another study, published in BMJ, compared the impact of coconut oil, butter, and olive oil on heart disease risk factors in men and women. The participants were divided into three groups and ate 50 grams (a little under two ounces) of one of the three fats daily for four weeks.

By the end of the study period, the butter group had experienced a rise in “bad” LDL cholesterol levels. But the participants in the coconut oil group, meanwhile, had increased HDL levels compared to the participants in the other two groups.

The researchers concluded that while coconut oil is predominantly saturated fat (about 90%), which is generally believed to raise LDL, perhaps not all saturated fats are created equal; in other words, coconut oil may not cause a spike in LDL because of its specific chemical makeup.

That’s a very different conclusion, however than that of the American Heart Association (AHA). In a 2017 report, the AHA stated that an increase in HDL alone can no longer be directly linked to positive changes in cardiovascular health. The organization also cited a handful of studies that showed that coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol as much as butter and beef and other foods high in saturated fat.

Are all coconut oils the same?

No. Refining, bleaching, and deodorizing may change coconut oil’s chemical composition and significantly reduce the levels of protective antioxidants. If you use coconut oil for eating, buy virgin—or VCO—produced by cold pressing oil from the coconut meat, with no further chemical processing. (The authors of the BMJ study pointed out that the virgin coconut oil used in the research may explain the experiment’s results.) Sometimes you’ll see ‘extra virgin’ on labels, but unlike olive oil, there’s no difference between virgin and extra-virgin coconut oils. There are essentially just two types of coconut oil: virgin and refined. Virgin is fragrant and tastes like coconut, while refined is tasteless and odor free.

To sum this up, here are six dos and don’ts regarding coconut oil that might just be of help to you:

Don’t make coconut oil the only oil you use. Based on the large body of nutrition research, extra virgin olive should remain the go-to.

Don’t rely on eating coconut oil alone as a weight-loss strategy. While further research may reveal more about VCO’s impact on metabolism, your overall eating pattern plays a much larger role in shedding pounds than any one food.

Don’t overdo it on coconut oil. A one level tablespoon portion at most is appropriate, or less if you include other fats in the same meal, like nuts or seeds.

Do use coconut oil in moderation if you enjoy it. Some research is investigating coconut oil’s possible connection to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, and VCO does provide phenolic antioxidants, which have been tied to health benefits, including anti-aging.

Do buy virgin coconut oil, or VCO for eating—not the refined type.

Do use coconut oil in rotation with other healthy fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, and nuts. Healthy fats are key to a balanced diet, along with plenty of veggies; lean protein, like wild salmon and pasture-raised eggs; and moderate portions of healthy starches, including pulses (beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas), whole grains (think quinoa and brown rice), and starchy vegetables (such as sweet potato, fingerling potatoes, root veggies, and squash).