As of lately, the fall from grace for coconut oil has felt more like a downward death spiral.  Once dubbed, “a superfood,” and now referred to as, “pure poison,” coconut oil is being called “one of the worst foods you can eat.”  In case you haven’t noticed, nutrition news is very fickle.

It wasn’t that long ago when this tropical oil was the darling of health foods and considered a miracle cure-all from bad breath to infections to curing chronic disease.  This quick turnaround has removed the health halo coconut oil once wore and replaced it with a more stern warning citing that scientific evidence shows no significant health benefits of coconut oil consumption.

What started the controversy was a lecture from a Harvard professor , Karin Michels, blasting the popularity of coconut oil on a YouTube video that went viral with nearly 1 million views since it was posted in July, 2018. Michels is the director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumor Epidemiology at the University of Freiburg and a professor at the Harvard T.H Chan School of Public Health. This is not the first time that experts such as Michels have attempted to set the record straight once and for all on coconut oil.  The American Heart Association (AHA) in 2017 also warned the public after releasing a report recommending against using coconut oil because of its high saturated fat content. In that report, the AHA stated that scientific evidence has shown foods high in saturated fat raises LDL cholesterol, a leading cause of atherosclerosis.

The AHA report also strongly advised replacing saturated fat with mono- and polyunsaturated fat to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Since the 1960s, the AHA has consistently stated that saturated fat is detrimental to cardiovascular health.

Why was coconut oil ever thought to be a superfood to begin with? It began with creative marketing techniques meant to influence and persuade the public to view coconut oil as a supposedly healthy food that did it all – anti-aging, prevention of dementia, and cardiovascular health.

The truth however, says differently. Coconut oil is composed of up to 80 percent fat which is saturated fat.  About 60 percent of fat found in butter is saturated while beef fat is about 40 percent. So when people loaded mounds of coconut oil into recipes believing it was a healthy fat, they unknowingly were raising their risk of heart disease including heart attacks and stroke.

What should a person do?

Where does this leave us in terms of how or even if, coconut oil should be used? All of us should replace saturated fats including coconut oil, butter, beef fat or palm oil with healthier, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats like olive oil, peanut oil, canola oil, corn oil, and sunflower oil.  These oils, along with regular exercise and eating a healthy diet, can lower cardiovascular disease by about 30 percent – as much as cholesterol-lowering statin drugs.

Other valuable information to remember includes the following:

  • Replacing saturated fats like coconut oil with refined or sugary carbohydrates, defeats the purpose. Instead rely on healthier carbohydrates such as whole grains, beans, nuts, and more fruits and vegetables.
  • The human body does require fat but again, choose mono- and polyunsaturated fats. When it comes to saturated fat, if you have high cholesterol, the recommendation by the AHA is to keep your total saturated fat intake to about 5% to 6% of your total calories. For those without elevated cholesterol, the recommendation is to keep saturated no more than 10% of total daily calories.

Remember, coconut oil, like all fats, is calorie-dense (about 120 in one tablespoon) and has no magic powers to make a recipe healthier or “clean.”

Categories: Health

Cheryl Mussatto

Cheryl Mussatto, MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian with a master’s degree in Dietetics and Nutrition from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in Dietetics and Institutional Management from Kansas State University. She is a clinical dietitian for Cotton O’Neil Clinics in Topeka and Osage City, an adjunct professor for Allen Community College, Burlingame, Ks where she teaches Basic Nutrition, and is a blog contributor for Dr. David Samadi and nutroutine.com, an online market place connecting nutrition experts with customers worldwide. She can be contacted here.

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