The (Mis)conceptions About Coconut Oil

Coconut oil may not be the superfood it has been built up to be.

Coconut oil has been a trendy health food for a few years now, but is the hype well founded?

For years, coconut oil has been lauded as a fat-burning, health-boosting superfood. From wellness gurus and yogis to doctors and dietitians, many praise it for its long list of supposed properties: it’s a convenient source of fast-burning energy; it reduces feelings of hunger, keeping cravings at bay; it can fight off colds and infections due to its antibacterial and antiviral qualities; and it can help you burn off harmful abdominal fat. And in fact, 72% of Americans believe coconut oil to be healthy, landing it on wellness and health trends year after year. This bubble may be bursting, however, with news organizations like the Washington Post recently reporting on the decline of the US’s “superfood” sweetheart.

In 2017, the American Heart Association released a statement advising against the consumption of coconut oil. The report, which analyzed data from more than 100 studies, found that when it came to heart health outcomes, there was no difference between coconut oil and other fats high in saturated fat, like butter and palm oil. This stirred up quite a controversy in the nutrition world. Coconut oil supporters claimed that, while coconut oil is high in saturated fat (82% of its fats are saturated, compared to 63% in butter, 50% in beef fat, and 39% in pork lard), the types of saturated fat in it are different—and are more health-promoting—than those found in animal products. Some studies found that coconut oil increased HDL (good) cholesterol—but it also increased LDL (bad) cholesterol. And while the correlation between saturated fat intake (from any food source), changes in cholesterol levels, and risk of heart disease has come into question, increases in LDL cholesterol are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, leading the American Heart Association to release their statement.

Jumping to Conclusions

Coconut oil doesn't have the proven health benefits to definitively outperform olive oil.

If you wouldn’t do it with olive oil, you may want to think twice about doing it with coconut oil.

The science is far from clear. Many studies on the healthfulness of coconut oil aren’t performed on humans, and many are short-term, which means that we can’t yet make statements regarding its long-term use. As with most big questions in nutrition, more research is needed before we can make sweeping conclusions. And therein lies the problem—in both wellness circles and larger media outlets, journalists have cherry-picked studies indicating the healthfulness (sometimes going so far as to suggest it is a miracle, a cure, or a superfood) of coconut oil, leading the public to believe that it is a food they should go out of their way to add it their diet.

Coconut oil’s health halo has led to a cult following of people who swallow a tablespoon of it every morning or blend it into their morning smoothie or coffee. You wouldn’t add olive oil (an oil with much more positive research to support its healthfulness) to your smoothie or coffee—so why would you go out of your way to add coconut oil? Health effects aside, you’re adding 120 calories to your daily diet, an amount that certainly adds up over time.

Everything in Moderation

Moderation is the key to using a product like coconut oil

You don’t have to avoid it, but certainly don’t rely on coconut oil.

This doesn’t mean you should never eat coconut oil again. Coconut oil has a long shelf life and, when used in moderation, is a fine choice to bake or sauté with. And, assuming you like the taste of coconut oil, it can add rich flavor to roasted veggies and grilled meats. Just don’t treat it like a miracle food that will change your health overnight or help you lose the five pesky pounds you’ve been trying to shed for the past two years. Add it to your rotation of olive oil, butter, and any other fats you use for cooking, but use it sparingly.

Kate Schlag

Posted by Kate Schlag

Kate Schlag, MPH, RD is the Nutritionist of Munchery. Kate Schlag is a Registered Dietitian and holds a Masters in Public Health with a concentration in nutrition from UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. She completed her dietetic internship at Oregon Health & Science University and went on to begin her career as an outpatient dietitian at UCSF. Growing up in Boulder, Colorado shaped her preferences for healthy foods and fitness from an early age. As an athlete, she believes in fueling her body with healthy, wholesome foods to optimize her performance on the field and off. At Munchery, she works closely with the company’s culinary team to design healthy and balanced meals using fresh and whole ingredients, and is a resource of information about meals, ingredients, and general nutrition.

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