Who doesn’t love logging on to the good old ‘net on a Friday morning to the headline “Coconut oil ‘as unhealthy as beef fat and butter.’” It’s got everything. Ah, you might think, my favourite health product is as bad as butter! Or you might even say to yourself, those coconut oil-huffing liberals are really getting what’s coming to them!
This round of panicked news isn’t coming from new data. Instead, the American Heart Association has reviewed the existing data, again reiterating that saturated fats are bad. Coconut oil has been recently touted as a healthier oil, and also the butt of a health nut-bashing meme going around, “If you stir coconut oil into your kale, it makes it easier to scrape into the bin.” To all of this I say: Coconut oil isn’t a health food and it isn’t junk food. Calm down.
The AHA released a review yesterday because “meta-analyses of observational studies and randomised clinical trials have come to discordant conclusions about the relationship between dietary saturated fat and risk of [cardiovascular disease],” they write, “creating confusion.”
The review is fine. It’s free, easy to read, and you should check it out. The news coverage is not fine, and has added to the confusion.
So let’s break it down: Fats are actually a slew of different molecules, stacked in three prongs. Unsaturated fat molecules’ prongs are curly from the presence of a double bond in their prongs, so they’re liquid at room temperature. Saturated fats’ prongs are straight, so they stack into solids. Trans fats have the double bond, but have been straightened (and form solids) through a process called hydrogenation.
The fats you eat like butter, coconut oil, and olive oil, are actually a mixture of different fat molecules, both saturated and unsaturated. Coconut oil has lots of saturated fat molecules, but its melting point is just above room temperature.
The AHA looks through lots of scientific studies from people who replaced saturated fat with other things in their diet. The main confusion, they say, comes from the fact that studies replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates saw fewer benefits. Those studies that replaced saturated fats with unsaturated fats found a somewhat lowered cardiovascular disease risk. After all of this work, I think they’ve done a convincing job showing that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats can have a benefit for reducing risk of cardiovascular disease.
They don’t say whether eating more saturated fats will increase your risk, though.
I’m here to talk about coconut oil. Only a handful of studies in the AHA report deal with coconut oil specifically. The large-scale trials don’t detail what kind of saturated fats folks were eating, but I have a hunch that coconut oil wasn’t Finnish hospital patients’ main source of saturated fat—they were probably eating more meat and butter. The coconut oil studies that the AHA does cite show that it raises both HDL (what people call “good”) cholesterol and LDL (what people call “bad” cholesterol).
The studies don’t link eating more coconut oil to heart disease—they link it to changing cholesterol metric. A metric that, if you look for it, has lots of conflicting data as to how it makes things worse and how badly (may I point you to Gary Taubes’ Good Calories, Bad Calories).
So, coconut oil is fine. It’s not fantastic. It’s not horrible. It’s just a source of saturated fat probably not as bad as butter.
The AHA’s conclusions are that you shouldn’t try to lower your total fat intake, but instead, replace saturated fat with unsaturated fat, combined with a healthier lifestyle.
But this is what everyone has been saying all along, because the ultimate message is to basically just eat less meat and dessert, eat more vegetables, and don’t overdo it with the coconut oil.