It’s no wonder people love coconut oil. It’s a fat that gets you less fat. It tastes delicious in that saturated-fatty kind of way, but without the stigma of butter. It smells delicious. It makes for a pretty good stir-fry. Also, it evokes the beach, and the whole “wellness” lifestyle — in which coconut oil plays a prominent role — pairs well with beach Instagrams.
Last week, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a report on the link between saturated-fat consumption and heart disease, analyzing years’ worth of data from multiple studies. Their findings were pretty damning: In one study, decreasing peoples’ saturated fat intake with nonsaturated fat by 30 percent and replacing it with unsaturated fat led to a sharp decrease in the incidence of heart attacks and mortality. In another, just a 5 percent reduction in saturated fat, replaced with polyunsaturated fat, led to a 25 percent lower risk of heart attack.
This all would have been fine and uncontroversial — if the study authors hadn’t come for the coconuts. But come they did. First, they noted that coconut oil’s healthy image may not reflect scientific opinion — 72 percent of Americans rate coconut oil as a “healthy food,” compared with only 37 percent of nutritionists. Coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat, they wrote, a greater percentage than butter, palm oil, or lard. And because multiple studies found that coconut oil increases LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol, a cause of heart disease, the report’s authors concluded: “We advise against the use of coconut oil.”
Outrage ensued. Across the internet, diet gurus have spent the past week bemoaning this callous treatment of their darling superfood by peer-reviewed nutrition research and data. So incensed are they, in fact, that we have a new “-gate” on our hands: Coconutgate. In a particularly noteworthy response, nutrition guru and Whole 30 diet creator Melissa Hartwig — whose popular diet plan includes heavy amounts of coconut oil — argued that the problem isn’t with coconut oil or saturated fat, but the AHA. “We’ve known that dietary saturated fat doesn’t increase likelihood for heart disease since 2010,” she wrote, citing a meta-analysis that researchers at Oxford have since denounced.
The online blowback bolsters the AHA’s point about the science–general public disconnect, but it also makes sense: We’ve been told repeatedly that this thing was good for us, and some of us have built our eating habits (or at least our blogs) around that information. Now, we’re learning that we’ve been living a dietary lie. What gives?!
First off, the halo around coconut oil may never have been all that deserved. The idea of coconut oil as a superfood seems to stem from two studies by Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a professor of nutrition at Columbia University. St-Onge’s studies showed that consuming oil of 100 percent medium-chain fatty acids could lead to fat-burning. However, coconut oil contains only 14 percent medium-chain fatty acids, and St-Onge herself said she thought the diet industry “extrapolated [her research] very liberally.” “I’ve never done one study on coconut oil,” she said. Nevertheless, St-Onge’s studies have been cited again and again.
In part, this may be because coconut oil has been caught up in larger diet trends. One thing most doctors agree on is that nutrition is a complex and relatively new scientific field, one riddled with unknowns, but within that murky world, the link between saturated-fat consumption and heart disease appears to be a better-supported claim than most. Still, thanks to the dietary industrial complex — a $20 billion industry whose members are bent on protecting their revenue and reputations — science often gets twisted, oversimplified, or lost in translation as it makes its way to the consumer. One overarching trend over the last few decades, for example, has been to demonize whole categories of nutrient, known to scientists as “macromolecules.” First, the trend was to shun fats in favor of a high-carb diet; then, as research came out showing that refined carbohydrates were probably contributing to the obesity epidemic, industry players pivoted to shun sugar and carbs in favor of certain fats — like, yes, coconut oil. Who knows? Perhaps proteins are next.
It’s a point worth emphasizing, though, that the AHA’s decision “not to recommend” coconut oil is not the same thing as saying you should never eat coconut oil again. It’s true that guzzling coconut oil is probably not great for you. The same can be said of using three sticks of butter on your morning toast. But both of these things are just fine in moderation. And for coconut oil, moderation isn’t even that limiting: For a person who eats 2,000 calories a day, the AHA recommends a daily consumption of no more than 13 grams of saturated fat, or about one tablespoon. It may not sound like a lot, but a spray of coconut cooking oil is only about 1/12 of that, or one gram. And a little coconut oil on toast probably wouldn’t get you close to a tablespoon, either.
In sum: Coconut oil will not kill you. Neither will listening to the AHA. What might, however, is stress. Stop obsessively following the diet industry! Worrying too much about anything — including the nutrients you’re consuming — could raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which over time can raise your risk of heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis, and even hair loss. The hysteric cycle of nutrition-related content is at least as unhealthy as the things it’s shrieking about, so if anything should be gleaned from Coconutgate, it is this: Get off the media hamster wheel, pay attention to your doctor, and listen to your body.
A piece of good news, though: If you do have concerns about your heart health or simply want to be careful, that doesn’t mean you have to get rid of the bottle of coconut oil in your pantry. It may not be a superfood, but it still has plenty of practical applications beyond bulletproof coffee. You can turn it into a skin moisturizer, deodorant, wood polish, hair tamer, hair conditioner (or pretty much any beauty product, for that matter), sunscreen (but not a very good one!), bug bite soother, hairball shrinker, shaving cream, massage oil, toothpaste, stretch mark preventer, car detailer, dog treat, rust remover, and yes … even a lube. Plus, you know, it still smells delicious.