Death By Coconut Oil?

Coconut Oil

I’m sure you haven’t read anything recently about coconut oil (ha). 

Is it really that bad for you?  Spoiler alert- NO!! 

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way- let’s explore the research.

What is coconut oil?

It is 90% saturated fat, 7% monounsaturated fat, and the rest from trace fats.  65% of the saturated fats are from medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).  The high percentage of saturated fats are what’s being questioned in the recent American Heart Association paper.

One thing to keep in mind, there are many types of saturated fats.  They are grouped based on the length of the fat chain into either short chain, medium chain, long chain, or very long chain fatty acids.  The variable lengths all have different effects on the body.  Think omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids (one is significantly more anti-inflammatory than the other- even though they are both considered polyunsaturated fats). 

So, what does the research say?

  • In the AHA paper, there are three (yes 3) papers discussed on coconut oil- and one is a review paper.  That’s not a strong amount of supportive data for all the press it is getting.  The main paper was published in 1995.  That research is 22 years old!!  What?
  • Epidemiological risks show no effect between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease
  • Studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats decreased cholesterol levels.  HOWEVER- this does not mean that saturated fats actually cause the elevation in cholesterol
  • Saturated fats (found in coconut oil) increase neuropeptide YY which suppresses your appetite after meals.  Meaning- you’re going to eat less and be full longer. 
  • Consumption of MCT oil can protect muscle mass in calorie restricted diets.  Consuming coconut oil as part of a weight loss plan, may help your body protect muscle mass and use fat mass more efficiently to promote weight loss.
  • Coconut oil may help diabetics become more sensitive to insulin.  This means that the cells would become more receptive to the presence of insulin after meals- leading to better regulation of blood sugars and decrease in complications from diabetes.
  • Coconut oil may also improve cognition and increase “processing speed.”  This is a fancy word for you’re going to be able to make critical decisions quicker- sounds good to me!
  • A large review study on saturated fats and serum cholesterol failed to find evidence linking high saturated fat intake and cholesterol levels.
  • Another study found the consumption of MCT actually lowered lipid numbers INCLUDING total cholesterol.
  • Finally, one study found that the inclusion of 30ml (270 calories) of coconut oil along with a lower calorie diet increased HDL by 8.2%, improved LDLHDL ration whereas other oils (particularly soybean oil) increased total cholesterol and LDL.  In diabetics- adding MCT decreased total cholesterol and LDL (12% and 17%)


But, here’s the biggest kicker—It’s not scientifically proven that cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease (insert gasp here).  Over half of the people who are admitted to hospitals with a heart attack HAVE NORMALCHOLESTEROL!!  What?!?!

When we are looking at cholesterol levels, it is important to determine the type of LDL (the “bad” cholesterol)- are they big fluffy particles (less dangerous) or small dense particles (more concerning).  At Whole Health Houston we like to run in-depth labs to determine the actual size of the LDL prior to making assumptions about the health risks.  

Also, did you know you would die without cholesterol?  It is important for the production of hormones, repairing your blood vessels, and actually aids in the digestion of fats!  Even if you never ate a single drop of cholesterol for the rest of your life- your body will still produce it naturally.  Do you think it’s important now? 

Cholesterol’s biggest job is to heal the damage done by inflammation.  It’s like yelling at the firefighter for putting out the fire.  Hello?  That’s dumb.  Let’s figure out what’s causing the fire in the first place (hint hint- excess sugar and carbohydrates are usually to blame).

Please please please, do not replace your coconut oil with canola oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, or other highly processed oils.  These are highly inflammatory oils, leading to more damage.

The big take away from all of this:

Coconut oil is not the villain.  Neither is cholesterol. 

You need to dig into why your cholesterol is elevated and treat the underlying cause. 

With elevated cholesterol, we recommend getting a full panel to determine the type and size of your cholesterol molecules.  We also recommend that you meet with our dietitian to discuss dietary interventions (which can include the addition of coconut oil)!    Each person is different in their needs, so a blanket statement is never the right choice (unless it is Arsenic is bad for you-  I’ll go along with that one).  All in all, there are a lot of things that are going to kill you before coconut oil. 


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  3. Mozaffarian D, Micha R, Wallace S Effects on coronary heart disease of increasing polyunsaturated fat in place of saturated fat: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials . PLoS Med. (2010)
  4. Kien CLet al Substituting dietary monounsaturated fat for saturated fat is associated with increased daily physical activity and resting energy expenditure and with changes in mood . Am J Clin Nutr. (2013)
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  10. Karr JE, Grindstaff TR, Alexander JE Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cognition in a college-aged population . Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. (2012)
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  14. Sachdeva, Amit et al. “Lipid Levels In Patients Hospitalized With Coronary Artery Disease: An Analysis Of 136,905 Hospitalizations In Get With The Guidelines”. N.p., 2016.
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    About the Author

    Erin Gussler, MS RDN LD CLT

    Growing up, Erin has always loved food (and could be found singing “fruit, fruit, fruit for the whole team” at baseball games).  When she started college, she realized her true calling was in the field of nutrition.  After a career in critical care nutrition, she is now using her passion and knowledge for integrative and functional nutrition to help you succeed in your wellness goals.  Nutrition should be more than just “another diet”, but about healing and wellness from the inside out.  Using personalized nutrition therapy, Erin will teach you to not only love food but to eat food (and enjoy food) that loves you back.

    Erin received her Bachelor of Science in Nutrition Science at Texas A&M University, and she completed her dietetic internship through Meredith College.  She is a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as well as the Houston Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.  She is also a member of several dietetic practice groups including Dietitians in Integrative and Functional Medicine, Nutrition Entrepreneurs, and Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition.

    Erin is committed to working with you to find balance in your life and to help demystify the world of nutrition.  Our goal at Whole Health Houston is to find the root causes of imbalance, and provide an individualized and custom wellness map.  Erin works closely with the doctors at Whole Health Houston to provide you with consistent care, evaluation, and on-going monitoring to help you succeed.  Let Erin walk alongside you and teach you to use food and nutrition to help you live your best life!

    About the Author

    Erin Gussler, MS RDN LD CLT

    Erin is committed to working with you to find balance in your life and to help demystify the world of nutrition.  Our goal at Whole Health Houston is to find the root causes of imbalance, and provide an individualized and custom wellness map.  Erin works closely with the doctors at Whole Health Houston to provide you with consistent care, evaluation, and on-going monitoring to help you succeed.  Let Erin walk alongside you and teach you to use food and nutrition to help you live your best life!

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