A Harvard Professor Called Coconut Oil ‘Pure Poison’—Here’s What You Need to Know
Our nutritionist explains everything you've ever wondered about coconut oil.
If you’ve been following the news about coconut oil, you might be a little confused: Is it a miracle food, capable of helping you lose weight and lower your cholesterol? Or is it an over-hyped fad laden with saturated fat that you should immediately cut from your diet? In a German lecture that’s gone viral this week, Karin Michels, PhD, a professor of epidemiology at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, went so far as to call coconut oil “pure poison” (according to a translation by Business Insider Deutschland).
If you've got questions, you're not alone. Lots of people have turned to Google to get the scoop on this highly-debated oil. Below, you'll find my answers to five of the top-searched queries.
Does coconut oil help you lose weight?
Maybe, but the research is very limited. One study, published in the journal Lipids, tested the effects of consuming about one ounce of either soybean oil or coconut oil over a 12-week period in women with abdominal obesity. The ladies were instructed to follow a balanced diet designed to maintain weight, and walk for 50 minutes a day. Both groups lost weight, but only the coconut oil eaters experienced a reduction in their waist measurements. Another more recent study in older men and women with heart disease also found that those given coconut oil experienced a reduction in both their body weight and waistline.
Intriguing research, but it is scant. And it’s important to note that not every study that asked people to add coconut oil resulted in weight loss or reduced belly fat.
Even if there is an effect, it doesn’t mean that downing coconut oil, without making any other changes to your eating pattern, will suddenly cause weight to fall off your frame. It also doesn’t mean that you should exclusively switch to coconut oil. That said, if you struggle with belly fat, and you want to try using virgin coconut oil as one of your fat sources, go for it. Just be sure it’s in moderation, and not the only or even primary fat you use (more on this below).
Is coconut oil good for your heart?
Probably not, but there are caveats. In both of the studies mentioned above, the coconut oil eaters saw a boost in their levels of “good” HDL cholesterol. Another study, published in BMJ, compared the impact of coconut oil, butter, and olive oil on heart disease risk factors in men and women. The participants were divided into three groups and ate 50 grams (a little under two ounces) of one of the three fats daily for four weeks.
By the end of the study period, the butter group had experienced a rise in "bad" LDL cholesterol levels. But the participants in the coconut oil group, meanwhile, had increased HDL levels compared to the participants in the other two groups.
The researchers concluded that while coconut oil is predominantly saturated fat (about 90%), which is generally believed to raise LDL, perhaps not all saturated fats are created equal; in other words, coconut oil may not cause a spike in LDL because of its specific chemical makeup.
That’s a very different conclusion, however, than that of the American Heart Association (AHA). In a 2017 report, the AHA stated that an increase in HDL alone can no longer be directly linked to positive changes in cardiovascular health. The organization also cited a handful of studies that showed that coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol as much as butter and beef and other foods high in saturated fat.
Here’s what’s really important: Heart health is largely tied to the overall pattern of your diet rather than any one food. Regardless of which oil you use, if you don't consume enough veggies and fiber and eat too much sugar and refined carbs, your heart health will suffer.
If you use virgin coconut oil (more on the importance of using the virgin kind below) as one of your fats in rotation with other healthful choices, I think that’s fine. Just be sure it’s part of a balanced diet, rich in fresh produce and other whole foods. And definitely include foods that are high in monounsaturated fats (think avocado, EVOO, and nuts) as your staples, since numerous studies consistently support this good fat’s connection to heart health.
Should I put coconut oil in my coffee?
In my opinion, no. This trend is part of the ketogenic diet craze. In a keto diet, 75-90% of the calories come from fat. If you’re aiming for that ratio, adding coconut oil can bump up the fat in your coffee, and give you some calories in lieu of solid food for breakfast. It may be filing and tasty. But simply drinking coconut oil bolstered coffee, without making any other changes, won’t magically transform your body. (I have also seen people drink coconut oil coffee in addition to eating breakfast, which makes for a super high-calorie meal that can lead to weight gain rather than weight loss.)
For healthy, sustainable weight loss, I definitely recommend starting your day with multiple whole foods. A primo example: a veggie, avocado, and herb omelet, made with organic, pasture-raised eggs, and a side of fresh berries.
How can I use coconut oil in cooking?
I like to use coconut oil in both cooking and baking, but only in certain recipes. While EVOO is my go-to oil, I find that coconut works well for recipes that benefit from coconut flavor, and a richness and mouth feel similar to butter.
For example, I use coconut oil in Moroccan lentil soup and a ginger-mint veggie and shrimp stir-fry. It also works well as a replacement for butter in certain baked goods and sweets. Because coconut oil tends to be solid at room temperature, it can be used to hold ingredients together, like crusts or crumbles, frosting, dark chocolate truffles, bars, and cookies. In most recipes coconut oil can replace butter in equal amounts.
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Is all coconut oil the same?
No. Refining, bleaching, and deodorizing may change coconut oil’s chemical composition and significantly reduce the levels of protective antioxidants. If you use coconut oil for eating, buy virgin—or VCO—produced by cold pressing oil from the coconut meat, with no further chemical processing. (The authors of the BMJ study pointed out that the virgin coconut oil used in the research may explain the experiment's results.) Sometimes you’ll see ‘extra virgin’ on labels, but unlike olive oil, there’s no difference between virgin and extra-virgin coconut oils. There are essentially just two types of coconut oil: virgin and refined. Virgin is fragrant and tastes like coconut, while refined is tasteless and odor free.
A few rules to live by ...
To sum up, here are six dos and don’ts regarding coconut oil that just make sense:
Don't make coconut oil the only oil you use. Based on the large body of nutrition research, extra virgin olive should remain the go-to.
Don't rely on eating coconut oil alone as a weight-loss strategy. While further research may reveal more about VCO’s impact on metabolism, your overall eating pattern plays a much larger role in shedding pounds than any one food.
Don't overdo it on coconut oil. A one level tablespoon portion at most is appropriate, or less if you include other fats in the same meal, like nuts or seeds.
Do use coconut oil in moderation if you enjoy it. Some research is investigating coconut oil’s possible connection to the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease, and VCO does provide phenolic antioxidants, which have been tied to health benefits, including anti-aging.
Do buy virgin coconut oil, or VCO for eating—not the refined type.
Do use coconut oil in rotation with other healthy fats, such as extra-virgin olive oil, avocado, and nuts. Healthy fats are key to a balanced diet, along with plenty of veggies; lean protein, like wild salmon and pasture raised eggs; and moderate portions of healthy starches, including pulses (beans, lentils, peas, chickpeas), whole grains (think quinoa and brown rice), and starchy vegetables (such as sweet potato, fingerling potatoes, root veggies, and squash).
Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and a consultant for the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Nets.