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Is Coconut Oil Bad For You? The Debate Is Complex

A study claimed it was as bad as beef fat. The backlash has been epic.

It's been a big fortnight for poor old coconut oil.

As you might be aware, coconut oil has increased in popularity over the last, say, 10 years -- and what was mostly only used in South East Asian cooking suddenly started making its way into smoothies, raw desserts and as a replacement for other oils when cooking.

It was touted as a super food -- a healthier alternative to other plant based oils, thanks to the medium chain triglycerides (more on those later).

Then a few weeks back the American Health Association released a study that revealed, among other findings, that coconut oil was very high in saturated fat. From there all proverbial hell broke loose, with half of the world's experts jumping to the defense of coconut oil, while the others applauded the findings, agreeing that coconut oil is the devil. The whole saga has even been dubbed 'Coconut Gate'.

Many have criticised the American Health Association (AHA), which is reportedly funded by various food and drug companies, making it a biased source. The study also only looked at existing data, and some say that data was cherry-picked.

The problem is, we're not really any closer to understanding if coconut oil is good or bad for us. Or rather, it depends on who you listen to.

Well known nutrition authority and founder of Bulletproof Nutrition defended coconut oil in a few online posts, as did nutritionist Diana Rodgers, pointing out that unless you lock people up and control every aspect of their diet, it is impossible to determine exactly what someone is eating, and self assessment was part of the study.

Should we be cooking with the stuff? That comes down to whose opinion you trust.
Should we be cooking with the stuff? That comes down to whose opinion you trust.

Dr Tania Dempsey, an expert in chronic disease, autoimmune disorders and mast cell activation syndrome also defended the oil, while others resurfaced studies with findings to the contrary to those of the AHA, of which there are a few, further muddying the waters.

On the flipside, Dr Garth Davis, a well known American doctor and a world leader in the field of bariatric medicine defended the study, posting to his popular Facebook page that the findings should now settle the 10 year long debate, linking to a post by Dr. Kahn, a preventive Professor of Cardiology, which explains why tropical oils such as coconut are no good for anyone.

Confused? yeah, us too.

To make matters worse, the media jumped on the study, pulling out only parts of the findings, creating sensationalist headlines out of those parts. The problem with that is that quite often people only read headlines while they're scrolling Facebook, or they'll read a story but won't click through to educate themselves on the nitty-gritty of the actual study.

"This can be very confusing for people, as the headlines linked to communication of studies can create alarm, and the research will at times focus on one specific aspect of the coconut oil, for example in this case the saturated fat component, and draw negative conclusions from there, without taking into account additional factors," Dietician and educator for Bioceuticals Belinda Reynolds told HuffPost Australia.

"Ultimately, balance and moderation are key, and if we consume a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, a variety of fat sources, lots of fibre, limited sugar and alcohol, and achieve sufficient rest and physical activity, then coconut oil is not going to cause heart disease, and may in fact be beneficial to health -- particularly if it is replacing other less desirable fat types."

Who knew this white stuff would cause so much controversy?
Who knew this white stuff would cause so much controversy?

"In addition to this, we need to remember that saturated fat is essential to life. Yes, you can have too much of a good thing, there is no denying that -- and in fact excess of any nutrient in the diet is not good -- and there are certain situations where individuals should limit their consumption of fat more than others, and therefore I would say that responsible use of coconut oil can be beneficial. Ideally, to minimise the negative impact fat can have on health we need to be keeping inflammation at bay by eating a plant-rich, anti-inflammatory diet, and keep sugar and nasty deep-fried, trans and hydrogenated fats to a minimum," Reynolds said.

When it comes to the study by the AHA, the focus was placed mostly on saturated fat and its link to heart disease.

"It seems that the key concern being communicated about coconut oil is due to its saturated fat content and thus propensity to increase heart disease risk, however it is important to also understand that there are beneficial factors associated with coconut oil."

"Recent evidence shows that contributors to heart disease are a high sugar diet and insulin resistance, plus high levels of oxidative stress due to poor glycaemic control, high consumption of over-processed, damaged fat-containing foods such as fried foods, over-processed meat and baked goods, and a lack of fats recognised as beneficial. Beneficial ones being fish, krill, raw nuts such as walnuts and pecans, avocados, virgin olive oil, etc. Of course a a sedentary lifestyle, smoking and hypertension are also contributors," Reynolds said.

So, do we count coconut oil in the above group of good fats?

"Coconut oil is a source of saturated fats, but also represents a source of beneficial compounds. The evidence is mixed, and we can't ignore that, but there is research to suggest that coconut oil can assist in the management of healthy blood sugar, reducing oxidative stress (supporting healthy blood pressure as well as healthy growth and development) and even acting to reduce inflammation at the joints and throughout the intestinal tract," Reynolds said.

Coconut oil is often used in 'heather' desserts such as raw cakes and protein balls.
Getty Images/iStockphoto
Coconut oil is often used in 'heather' desserts such as raw cakes and protein balls.

"Certain components, namely the medium chain triglycerides that make up a portion of the saturated fats in coconut oil, are also investigated for their ability to support cognition in certain subsets of the population, to be antimicrobial, and to support energy production in certain situations."

"Coconut oil can at times be used as a replacement to other oils that you may have otherwise used for cooking. Because much of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, it tends to be more stable and less prone to oxidation when compared to polyunsaturated fats for example - making it potentially better for health. It can be also be a dairy-free alternative to butter in some situations, such as desserts. Keep in mind that coconut oil can be hard to use in dressings in winter as it is often rock solid at room temperature," Reynolds said.

"Olive oil can also be used on salad dressings and for light stir-frying. It tends to more stable when compared to other vegetable oils, because of the high concentration of mono-unsaturated fats. The virgin kind can also be rich in antioxidants, however these are retained more without heating."

As for oils used for deep frying, it's pretty much a bad idea altogether.

"Most oils are damaged during the deep frying process, and thus most deep-fried foods contain damaged fats. but really, I wouldn't recommend deep fried products full stop."

No matter which oil you use, eating foods cooked like this regularly is a bad idea.
Rena-Marie via Getty Images
No matter which oil you use, eating foods cooked like this regularly is a bad idea.

The take home message? Coconut oil is still an oil, and all oil should be consumed in moderation.

"I often hear different messages which vary from 'all fat is bad' to 'fat is no longer the enemy, eat as much as you want!'. I don't completely agree with either and I believe moderation is the key. It is true that sugar is a major enemy, possibly more so than fat for many, and we need to pay far more attention to reducing that, but we also still need to be watching our fat consumption, but more so to ensure that we consuming it from the right sources, and also to ensure that we are consuming a variety," Reynolds said.

"For example, even excessive amounts of omega-6 fats, from certain vegetables, can be pro-inflammatory for our body, and should be balanced with omega-3 fats. This doesn't make omega-6 bad, it just means we need to ensure variety in the diet and also focus on consumption of omega-3's too, from healthy oily fish such as salmon and sardines, throughout the week -- and throw in some raw nuts too. We should also minimise the intake of processed meat products, charcoaled meats and fried foods, as these fats are not the good kind."


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