Is Coconut Oil Really Poison? A Guide to Fats




For 50 years we’ve been told fat is a killer. Public health messages would say it contributes to coronary heart disease, stroke, obesity and even cancer. This is what set off the low-fat diet craze of the 80s along with a few decades worth of misguided dietary advice to avoid fat, particularly saturated fat, at all costs. People were encouraged to swap butter for margarine and animal fats for vegetable oils.

I’ll be brief with the history lesson, but the whole “fat is bad” thing started in the 1950s with a guy named Ancel Keys who proposed his lipid hypothesis which was that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease. The key point here is that his hypothesis was never proven, but the vegetable oil and food processing industries jumped on the bandwagon and helped propagate his fake science that industrial processed vegetable oils are healthier than saturated fat.

Mainstream media got on board and all of a sudden Americans were indoctrinated with the notion that margarine was their saving grace and butter was the devil. Everyone was spreading margarine on their toast, cooking with canola oil, eating fat-free or low-fat dairy products and not going anywhere near the breakfast their grandparents ate, bacon and eggs.

While we have come a long way since the low-fat diet craze of the 80s, old belief systems die hard – people are still apprehensive about eating foods high in fat, especially saturated fat. And it doesn’t help when coconut oil scare stories pop up regularly in the media. You may have seen the recent USA Today article about the Harvard professor who said coconut oil is “pure poison.” The professor’s name is Karin Michels and she gave a lecture in Germany this summer warning people of the dangers of coconut oil because it contains saturated fats which she says clogs coronary arteries. Her claim parrots the statement the American Heart Association (AHA) put out last summer saying that saturated fats such as coconut oil increase heart attacks and strokes and therefore should be avoided.

The first thing to consider here is that there has never been a debate over the fact that coconut oil contains high amounts of saturated fats and can increase total cholesterol levels. That’s not breaking news – we’ve known that for a while now. The studies cited by the AHA link coconut oil consumption to increased cholesterol numbers; but these studies do not link coconut oil to increased risk of heart disease. This is a VERY important distinction.

The key thing to know is this: Total cholesterol is a poor predictor for assessing heart attack and stroke risk.

The AHA’s June 2017 report is way out of date when it comes to cholesterol because experts know now it is not your total cholesterol number that predicts heart attack and stroke risk. Functional medicine practitioners agree that better predictors for heart attack and stroke risk are high inflammation markers (like hsCRP and homocysteine), low HDL, high triglycerides, and high amounts of small, dense LDL particles. The latter needs a little explanation…

The coconut oil studies the AHA cite show that coconut oil raises both HDL and LDL cholesterol. So, that means it increases our protective HDL (aka “good”) cholesterol while also raising LDL cholesterol, often dubbed as “bad cholesterol. Here’s the kicker - having more LDL isn’t always a bad thing. It depends on the type of LDL cholesterol particles you have. Research shows that large, fluffy LDL particles do not contribute to heart disease. However, small, dense particles are more dangerous because they easily oxidize and contribute to a build-up of plaque in your arteries, putting you at greater risk of heart disease.

So which type of LDL particles does saturated fat increase? You guessed it! The benign large, fluffy particles; NOT the dangerous small, dense ones. Even more interesting is that studies show eating saturated fat may actually change the small, dense particles in your body to the healthier large, fluffy ones.

Bottom line: there is no solid scientific evidence that natural foods containing saturated fats are associated with cardiovascular disease, heart disease or stroke. In fact, it’s quite the opposite! Evidence shows that coconut oil is good for your heart because it optimizes your protective HDL cholesterol, while also lowering triglycerides and dangerous LDL cholesterol particles. Need proof? Here’s a Harvard University study showing that eating more saturated fats can actually prevent the progression of heart disease!

Saturated fats are actually essential for our overall health. They provide the building blocks of cell membranes and hormones, act as carriers for fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K), help convert beta-carotene into vitamin A, assist with mineral absorption, among other things. So instead of fearing fat, most of us need to actually increase the amount of healthy fats we’re including in our diets, with these caveats:

  1. If you’re eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) full of processed carbs and sugar, then it is not a good idea to eat large amounts of saturated fat. This “mixed meal” of sugar and saturated fat amplifies the negative effects of the carbs and sugar (namely, inflammation). Solution: cut out the carby junk foods! If you’re not willing to do that, then you should limit your saturated fat intake.

  2. With the keto diet gaining popularity, I’ve seen people swing the opposite direction of low-fat and now they’re drenching everything they eat in saturated fat. Think plates of butter, bacon and cheese. That’s usually not a good idea either.

  3. Remember the key principle of bio-individuality when it comes to nutrition. The right amount of saturated fat for one person might be too much for another. If you’re struggling, I recommend working with a holistic health practitioner to figure out what works for your own body!

Photo by Ana-Maria Stanciu for Hello Glow

Photo by Ana-Maria Stanciu for Hello Glow

What are the best fats to consume?

Whole food fats

  • Organic, pasture-raised eggs

  • Cold-water wild-caught fatty fish, such as salmon and sardines

  • Full fat, organic, grass-fed dairy products, especially when raw or fermented

  • Raw nuts and seeds

  • Olives

  • Coconut products, i.e. coconut milk, coconut flakes, coconut yogurt, etc.

Now let’s talk about cooking…

Calorie-wise, all oils are about the same – 120 calories per tablespoon. And their fat content is about 14 grams per tablespoon. Where oils differ is in their fat composition, i.e. the distribution of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats they contain.

Saturated Fats

After reading the above, hopefully you’re no longer scared of saturated fat. That’s great because these fats are excellent for high heat cooking. They tolerate high heat temperatures without becoming oxidized.

  • Organic, extra virgin, cold-pressed (or raw) coconut oil

  • Organic red palm oil – look for the label “Palm Done Right” to ensure environmentally-friendly production that doesn’t contribute to deforestation or habitat destruction

  • Organic, grass-fed animal fat from beef, lamb, chicken or pork

  • Organic, grass-fed butter

  • Organic, grass-fed ghee

Monounsaturated Fats

These fats can be easily damaged and oxidized when heated so I recommend using the following for low-medium heat cooking only. They’re great for dressings and dips.

  • Organic, extra virgin, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil

  • Organic, extra virgin, cold-pressed avocado oil

  • Organic, extra virgin, cold-pressed macadamia nut oil

  • Organic, extra virgin, cold-pressed sesame oil – regular or toasted

  • Organic, extra virgin, cold-pressed walnut oil

What are the worst fats to consume?

Polyunsaturated Fats

Polyunsaturated fats are found in vegetable oils, such as soybean oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, canola oil and peanut oil, which are highly inflammatory and highly processed. If you’re curious how these oils are made, watch this short video. There are several major issues with industrially processed vegetable oils:

  1. Rancidity - Due to the high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids, these oils oxidize easily when exposed to light, heat or air. These exposures turn the oils rancid which turns breaks down the oil’s chemical structure creating free radicals which contribute to oxidative stress in the body.

  2. Solvent-based extraction – most industrially processed vegetable oils are extracted from plants using chemical solvents such as hexane, a byproduct from gasoline production. While solvents are mostly removed during the refining process, hexane residue can remain in the oil and that’s seriously toxic!

  3. Hydrogenation – in order to include vegetable oils in shelf-stable products such as baked goods, these oils are either partially or fully hydrogenated. This process creates “trans” fatty acids which are the worst fats to consume!

Here’s a list of oils to steer clear of:

  • Margarine or “buttery spreads”

  • Canola oil

  • Cottonseed oil

  • Corn oil

  • Grapeseed oil

  • Rice bran oil

  • Safflower oil

  • Sunflower oil

  • Soybean oil

  • Peanut oil

  • Generic vegetable oil

  • Anything that has “partially hydrogenated” in the ingredients list