Coconut oil confusion – is it as healthy as we are led to believe?

Recent concerns over this new ‘health food’

Qualified Nutritionist (BSc, MSc, RNutr)
Ask Emma

23 June 2017

American Heart Association allegations

The recent allegations against coconut oil have come from the American Heart Association who have reported that coconut oil could be a risk to our health. This has led to an onslaught of media headlines including ‘coconut oil could be as unhealthy as beef fat and butter’, ‘coconut oil contains high levels of saturated fats – almost six times higher than olive oil’, ‘saturated fats are considered unhealthy because they raise ‘bad’ cholesterol levels which can increase heart disease risk’. At first glance these are quite convincing headlines and you may well be worried...

What can we take from these reports?

There’s no denying that coconut oil is rich in saturated fats – we’ve known this for many years though, so nothing new there. However, what these new reports don’t explain is that the jury is very much still out in terms of saturated fats – the topic is a lot more complicated than we are led to believe in terms of the quality of research out there, and the possibility that different types of saturated fats – by this I mean plant based saturated fats vs. animal based, or those that are highly processed vs. those that aren’t – could have very different effects in terms of our health.

Why are fats considered bad?

Back in the 1970’s, research that we now know to be unreliable managed to influence the government, the media and us, and fats were demonised. Much of the evidence came from epidemiological studies (not the gold standard by any means) which can show correlation but not causation, but yet, in the end it was still concluded that saturated fat intake was linked to raised cholesterol levels, which was a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. 

As a result, over the last 40 years there has been a shift towards low fat diets and many believe this low fat movement has had detrimental effects on our health – diabetes anyone? The thing is, when a product is made ‘low fat’ we need something in there to make up the difference! There are only 4 macronutrients which foods need to comprise of: carbohydrates (sugar is a carbohydrate), protein, fat and alcohol. So if a product is guaranteed low fat, what’s in there instead? Alcohol? Good quality protein? Both less likely, so you guessed it, sugar!

This issue crops up in processed foods but also in our daily diets as a whole, if we eat less fat in general, then the remaining percentage of our daily diets will be made up, most likely, in the form of carbohydrates.

Now, I’m certainly not saying that all fats are good, I’ll go on to that next, but basically be wary of these ‘low fat’ products and think twice before removing all sources of fat from your diet! After all, we need fats for a whole number of reasons, but one key function is to manufacture hormones – absolutely vital for managing body weight amongst other important roles.

What does the research really say about saturated fats and heart disease?

New research has concluded that the dietary recommendations made in the 1970’s (that have plagued us ever since!), weren’t based on reliable evidence. Good quality reviews have now shown that the link between saturated fat and heart disease simply can’t be proven yet – the evidence is still inconclusive1. But actually, we are now beginning to understand that there are so many different types of saturated fats and these potentially have different effects on our health.

Also, when we consider the mechanisms behind heart disease, not to go into massive detail, but inflammation has been shown to a main factor in this condition. This means inflammatory foods (processed foods) are very likely to be big culprits – this theory has been backed by the likes of trans fats (highly processed) being strongly linked to heart disease2, processed meats being ones to watch too3, versus the Mediterranean diet having a protective effect. But guess what, it’s very rich in fats too, 10% of which on average is saturated!4 The difference being, this diet is made up of lots of good-quality fats and fresh fruit and vegetables.

Coconut oil in particular?

Coconut oil has been used for thousands of years by people in Asia and South America – in some of the healthiest parts of the world may I add – where they cook fresh and don’t eat processed rubbish. 

Research is up and coming, but some initial animal studies have suggested that coconut oil could have beneficial effects on serum lipid levels and LDL oxidation (inflammatory processes)5. Human trials have also shown that coconut oil may have significant effects on reducing body weight and waist circumference when compared to other types of oils6 – and this backs up which we already know about coconut oil – it is extremely rich in medium chain triglycerides (which other saturated fats aren’t necessarily), which are thought to have beneficial effects on energy expenditure.

How should I approach fats going forward?

So what does all of this mean? It means that we can’t actually conclude that a diet rich in saturated fat is bad for our health – but what we do know is that diets high in carbohydrates and sugar are a major risk for obesity and diabetes7, so this really needs to be a major consideration going forward. 

So, to sum up, my advice is as follows:

  • Don’t forget that fats are energy dense so you do need to take that into account when including them in your diet – but they should be included. If your meal contains extra calories from healthy fats then you won’t need so many carbohydrates to feel full – fats are very satiating so make us feel fuller and for longer too – plus, they help dampen the effects of carbohydrates on your blood sugar levels!
  • The claims on saturated fats, and coconut oil in particular just aren’t justified and haven’t been backed by research. We really need more research into the different types of saturated fats to understand this all better. For now I would recommend reducing your intake of processed meats, as we know that these are inflammatory – but including good quality meats and dairy (even butter!), olive oil, flaxseed oil, nuts, seeds, avocados and of course, coconut oil, all in moderation as part of a healthy balanced diet. Remember, eating fresh and avoiding inflammatory foods is key. Many vegetable oils are actually rich in omega-6 polyunsaturated fats which are pro-inflammatory in the body, so this is why we often recommend other oil such as olive oil, coconut oil and cold-pressed oils such as flaxseed oil.


1.Harcombe Z, Baker JS, Cooper SM, et al Evidence from randomised controlled trials did not support the introduction of dietary fat guidelines in 1977 and 1983: a systematic review and meta-analysis OpenHeart, 2015; 2:e000196. doi: 10.1136/openhrt-2014-000196

2.Lopex-Garcia E, Schulze MB, Meigs JB et al. Consumption of trans fatty acids is related to plasma biomarkers of inflammation and endothelial dysfunction. J Nutr, 2005, 135(3), 562-566

3. Micha R, Wallace SK and Mozaffarian D. Red and Processed Meat Consumption and Risk of Incident Coronary Heart Disease, Stroke, and Diabetes Mellitus. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Circulation. 2010, DOI:

4.Estruch R, Ros E, Salas-Salvado J et al. Primary prevention of cardiovascular disease with a Mediterranean diet. N Engl J Med, 2013, 368, (1279-1290)

5.Nevin KG and Rajamohan T. Beneficial effects of virgin coconut oil on lipid parameters and in vitro LDL oxidation. Clinical Biochemistry, 2004, 37(9), (830-835)

6.Assunção ML, Ferreira HS, dos Santos AF et al. Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity. Lipids, 2009, 44(7), 593-601

7.Gross LS, Li L, Ford ES and Liu S. Increased consumption of refined carbohydrates and the epidemic of type 2 diabetes in the United States: an ecologic assessment1,2,3. Am J Clin Nutr, 2004, 79(5), (774-779)


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