Unless you’ve been under a rock for the last few years, you’ll know that coconut oil is being heavily promoted on the internet and in popular books, as a health food. Self-styled health gurus wax lyrical about its content of medium chain triglycerides (a fat that doesn’t make you fat), antimicrobial properties, stability when heated, and of course, the very appealing notion that Polynesian people eat lots of the stuff and don’t get heart disease. So let’s sort fact from marketing fantasy. First of all, by my definition of healthy food – nutrient content per calorie – there is absolutely no way that coconut oil can qualify as a health food. It contains absolutely no protein, carbohydrate, fibre, vitamins A, C or E, folate or other B vitamins, magnesium, calcium, manganese, phosphorus, iron, selenium, zinc or omega 3 fats. Zip, zero and zilch of the key nutrients needed for the human body to function optimally. The only nutrient that it boasts is fat, and most of that fat is saturated fat. Coconut oil defenders claim that it is unlike other saturated fats (such as butter or lard) because it contains medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), and these are preferentially burnt for energy rather than stored as fat. The flaw in this argument is that MCTs make up a very small proportion of the overall saturated fat content in coconut oil, and are frequently removed from coconut oil sold for human consumption anyway, because they are used in the cosmetics industry. One of these MCTs, lauric acid, has antimicrobial properties, which gets the coconut oil advocates very excited. I say, so what? How many people get sick from microbial illnesses, compared to the number that are sick from overweight and its associated conditions: diabetes, heart disease and common cancers such as breast, prostate and bowel? We are surrounded by, covered in and contain uncountable numbers of microbes, and this inevitable condition of human life doesn’t make most of us sick, most of the time. The claim that coconut oil is heart-healthy is a sick joke. When given to healthy human volunteers in a study conducted by Australian researchers, coconut oil dramatically decreased endothelial function and impaired the antioxidant capacity of HDL for at least 6 hours after consumption. What that means is that if you eat coconut oil, your blood will be more prone to clotting, there will be accelerated formation of plaque inside your arteries and your arteries will be unable to dilate (open up to allow more blood flow to the tissues they supply) for at least 6 hours. Do that often enough, and you’ll make yourself an excellent candidate for a heart attack or stroke. The claim that populations eating coconut oil are healthy and don’t get heart disease doesn’t hold water either. A study comparing food consumption patterns and heart disease rates in Singapore and Hong Kong (where the majority of both populations is ethnic Chinese), found that the death rate from heart disease in 1993-1995 was 2.98 times higher in Singaporean men, and 3.14 times higher in Singaporean women, than in Hong Kong men and women respectively. Singaporeans were found to have higher serum total cholesterol and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol, but lower HDL (‘good’) cholesterol than those living in Hong Kong. After analysing the dietary patterns in both territories, the researchers concluded that “higher consumption of coconut and palm oil, mainly containing saturated fat, in Singapore” was one of the primary explanations for the dramatic difference in heart disease deaths. Claiming that the Polynesians ate lots of coconut oil and had a low incidence of heart attacks is just plain naive. All the other characteristics of the Polynesian diet and lifestyle are heart-protective: their traditional diet (now, sadly, largely abandoned) was characterised by a high intake of fibre, plant sterols, antioxidants and omega 3 fats; with an extremely low sodium (salt) intake; high activity level; and low rates of overweight and obesity – certainly not the case in Polynesia now! Since the remainder of their diet was low in calories and fat, the addition of total fat and saturated fat from coconut wasn’t a deal-breaker in relation to the overall healthfulness of their diet. But if you think that sedentary, overweight Westerners with a low plant food intake can reap benefits from adding coconut oil to their diet, you’re living in cloud cuckoo land. If you’re slim, active, have no major cardiac risk factors, and eat a diet high in unrefined plant food, you can get away with having some coconut now and then – but don’t overdo it. If you are overweight, sedentary and have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, high C-reactive protein, a high waist to hip ratio, impaired glucose tolerance or diabetes, don’t even think about it.
Coconut oil: beyond the hype