Recently there was a minor media blitz of stories related to coconut oil. For example: “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy.” which was published in USA Today. Other media outlets have been mirroring various perspectives on this data over the last week.
The source for all these stories is a recent advisory from the American Heart Association that was released last week, on June 13th, 2017. The full text of this paper is available as a PDF download on that page.
The hubbub seems to have started over a few statements within this paper, including: “The main sources of saturated fat to be decreased are dairy fat (butter), lard (pork), beef tallow, palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil.”
Later coconut oil is given its own section in which it is pointed out that, in contrast to its perceived status as a “health food”, it has few known positive effects. Coconut oil is high in saturated fats, which have the ability to increase LDL cholesterol, a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Coconut oil's high fat content also renders it calorically dense and easy to overconsume and gain weight on. Thus, they recommend against its consumption.
In the past few days, people have scrambled to defend or criticize coconut oil depending on their own particular preferences. Here’s the reality.
Coconut oil probably isn’t healthy for you.
From a strict numbers perspective, no, coconut oil probably isn’t healthy. While saturated fat isn’t terrible and to be avoided at all costs, high saturated fat consumption probably isn’t a great idea.
Fats are highly calorically dense relative to how filling they are - that makes it easy to overeat them. It’s no surprise that bodybuilders and other athletes looking to gain weight often find ways to add additional sources of fat into their diets - nuts, oils, and other fat sources are frequently focused on as a way to pack in extra calories. Coconut oil, which is primarily made up of fat, is no exception. So, it isn't a great idea to consume a lot since this makes it easy to gain unwanted weight. It's the same with butter and other high fat foods.
Saturated fats aren’t the worst thing in the world, but they are linked to higher LDL cholesterol and carry some risk of heart disease.
Coconut oil has been marketed as healthy.
In the past, there was a “fat based” theory of health and wellness. Within this theory, fat was demonized as a macronutrient that caused both weight gain and poor health. Likewise, the cholesterol theory of heart disease led to further support of this theory, and further implications that dietary fat is unhealthy.
As a result, diet fads centered on low fat diets and low fat products. You can still find “health foods” that are marketed as good for you because they’ve removed some of the normal fat content of that product. This was an unfortunate red herring.
As research improved, the fat based theory of health and wellness, as well as the cholesterol theory of heart disease, began to show holes. There’s still certainly some value to them, but they’re not the entire picture. Research began to show that health and weight management isn’t necessarily about dietary fat consumption so much as it’s about overall calorie intakes and activity levels.
There was instant backlash. Since then, there have been a number of fad diets that lean in the exact opposite direction. Paleo and many other modern fad diets generally preach a high protein, high fat, low carbohydrate approach as a path to leanness and health. But that’s an overcorrection because of course that’s not really what it’s all about either.
Diet pundits have made a living selling high fat diets. They’ve branded things like butter in your coffee, coconut oil, and other sources of dietary fat as being healthy for you. But the evidence doesn’t really support these claims, and never has.
All the same, it’s not actually about whether foods are “healthy”.
Looking at foods in a binary healthy/unhealthy approach isn’t useful. It’s not how foods work.
The traditional view of diet is the “clean eating” approach. This means that certain foods are good and certain foods are bad. Under this approach, health is all about eating “good” foods and avoiding “bad” ones. But this approach has numerous holes in it, because it fails to pay attention to the more important factors involved: overall caloric intake and activity levels.
In a clean eating diet, you can eat a lot of the foods considered healthy, but if you’re not paying attention to your caloric intake, you may gain weight from eating excess calories or lose weight from eating fewer calories than your body needs. It’s about the calories they contain, and not the foods themselves (except in that they contain calories).
By extension, no food is “healthy” or “unhealthy” in a vacuum. Certain foods tend to be filling and encourage good dietary patterns, including home cooked protein sources, veggies and fruits. Consuming a lot of these foods has a tendency to course correct and prevent you from filling up on highly delicious but minimally filling foods. Processed foods tend to be very calorically dense relative to how filling they actually are, causing us to more naturally overeat them.
But a good diet is flexible. It allows us to eat primarily the “healthy” foods while still leaving room for the “unhealthy” foods. In moderation, a lot of potential diet setups are possible. Of course, adding a lot of exercise in is also a good thing, because it increases our metabolisms and allows us more freedom to eat the foods that we want.
Is coconut oil healthy? Well, it can certainly be part of a healthy diet, so long as your overall calorie intake per day is appropriate to your activity level. But that’s not to say that eating it will make you magically immortal, nor will it kill you instantly. It’s just one food out of many. I’m not saying you can never eat it, but I’m not saying that you should eat it with every meal either.
Your diet is made up of all the things you eat. A “good” diet isn’t about whether or not you eat specific foods, but the strategies you use to manage your diet as a whole.
This kind of story is misleading.
Stories like this are a dime a dozen. We see stories like this practically every month. Every time a new study comes out suggesting that certain foods are “good” or “bad”, it’s uncritically reported without any understanding of the deeper scientific process. As I’ve written before, this is a mistake.
There’s a well known backfire effect when it comes to debunking false information. This debunking backfire effect happens whenever false or misleading information is released: what stands out in people’s minds most strongly is always the original false information, and not the later attempt to debunk it.
Worse, attempting to debunk false information later can have the unintended effect of further spreading the original false information, leading to even more confusion! Over time, false information can become more and more destructive as it spreads further and further despite numerous attempts to stop it. Attempting to stop it can sometimes only make it worse.
A good diet is not about eating or not eating certain foods. Likewise, it shouldn’t really matter whether or not coconut oil is strictly healthy for you or not - what matters is whether or not the nutrient profile of coconut oil can fit into your flexible diet, and whether or not you’re watching your calories and keeping your activity level high. Even debunking previous false information (that coconut oil is always good for you) has the unintended side effect of thinking that the presence or absence of coconut oil should be an important consideration in your diet, when the truth couldn’t be further from it.
Hell, even writing this article may or may not simply worsen the problem - though I’d like to hope it doesn’t.
Stop worrying about individual foods. Focus on home cooked, high protein, high fiber meals, and get your exercise in. This isn’t an exciting answer - but it’s simple, and it works.
Recently, the American Heart Association released a statement against the healthiness of coconut oil.
On it’s own, coconut oil probably isn’t healthy for you.
Recent high fat diet fads have promoted coconut oil as a health food, in contrast to evidence based recommendations.
Coconut oil still has a place in a proper, calorie-controlled diet, provided it’s not eaten to excess and doesn’t push out other, lower calorie, more filling foods.
It’s not about the coconut oil - it’s about developing a proper caloric intake for your activity level, and eating a variety of foods including protein, fiber, and the energy you need to live.
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