As a nation, we’ve wisened up on our nutrition knowledge. Fats aren’t the devil—nor are they equal. Avocado, good. Mayonnaise, not so good. And for the most part, you can spot the foods that are pretty terrible for you: fast food fries, bakery confections, anything at the movie theater.
But last week, in a now-viral talk, Karin Michels, Ph.D., a professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health added a more unsuspecting item to the blacklist: coconut oil.
In the talk, aptly named “Coconut Oil and Other Nutritional Errors,” Michels refers to coconut oil as “pure poison” and deems it “one of the worst foods you can eat.”
Her problem with the “healthy” oil? Its sky-high fat levels, more than 80 percent of which is saturated fat. That’s what beef, butter, cheese, and dairy products are packed with, according to research from Nutrition Reviews. Comparatively, butter is about 63 percent saturated fat; beef, 50 percent, and pork lard, 39 percent, per the American Heart Association. So you can see the dilemma.
And Michels isn’t the only one concerned with saturated fat—which can raise levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol—or coconut oil these days. The American Heart Association (AHA) recently updated their dietary guidelines suggesting people lower their intake of saturated fats, replacing them with unsaturated versions (think: olive oil) to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. The report also stated: “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”
Other research has linked saturated fat intake to an increased risk of heart disease. (Though, it’s worth noting that in more recent years, large bodies of research—like a 22-year-long followup study including nearly 3,000 adults from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition—have repeatedly not found a connection between saturated fats and heart disease.
So Is Coconut Oil Really That Bad for You?
First, it’s important to understand that not all studies (and not all coconut oil) are created equal, notes Alan Aragon, a top nutrition researcher and educator: “The AHA’s judgment of coconut oil does not discriminate between research on the effect of the different types of coconut oil.”
Some of the studies that find coconut oil has a negative effect on cholesterol, for example, have used hydrogenated coconut oil. Hydrogenation is a form of chemical processing that changes oil’s consumption, reducing antioxidants and making unsaturated fats more saturated.
Extra virgin coconut oil or virgin coconut oil, on the other hand, is produced by cold-pressing oil from the coconut meat, with no further chemical processing, explains performance nutritionist Cynthia Sass, R.D., C.S.S.D.
To date, all of the studies on the effects of extra virgin coconut oil have shown neutral to favorable effects on cholesterol, says Lim. Coconut oil’s “bad rap,” he says, is “underserved” and a result of the unawareness of this important distinction.
That said, coconut oil is far from a superfood.
“The Natural Medicines Database states there is insufficient evidence to rate the effectiveness of coconut oil for weight loss, hypercholesterolemia, diabetes, chronic fatigue, Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and thyroid conditions,” says Melissa Majumdar, R.D., a spokesperson for The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Many of the ‘health’ claims have been blown out of proportion and are not yet validated.”
“Coconut is somewhat analogous to dark chocolate,” adds Brian St. Pierre, R.D., director of performance nutrition at Precision Nutrition. “Some is neutral to possible beneficial. A lot is likely detrimental.” He also notes that while there are healthier fat sources—extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, and aged cheese—coconut oil is not actively detrimental like trans fats.
The Bottom Line
Fat—mostly the unsaturated kinds—is an important part of any healthy diet. It helps you absorb vitamins (A, D, E, and K, specifically), protects your brain, and keeps you full, Majumdar says. But you’ve got to watch your intake.
“All fats, saturated or unsaturated, add up quickly because they’re calorie dense, meaning a small amount goes a long way,” Majumdar adds. (One gram of fat, for example, has 9 calories whereas a gram of carbs only has 4 calories.)
Aim to have saturated fats make up no more than 7 to 10 percent of the overall 20 to 35 percent of calories from fat a day, says Majumdar. (That’s also per the USDA’s dietary guidelines). One tablespoon of coconut oil, which can pack 14 grams of fat—12g saturated fat —can easily eat up most of your allotment.
And remember: If you eat a well-rounded diet filled with mostly minimally processed whole foods—proteins, veggies, quality carbs, and healthy fats—then 1 to 2 tablespoons a day of coconut oil won’t likely make much of a difference to any health markers, says St. Pierre.
Read: not poison.
“Coconut oil is simply a dietary fat source, nothing special,” adds Aragon. “No need to seek it out in any specific amount—no need to be afraid of it either.”