Coconut oil: Is it poison?

‘Superfood’, the word that makes products fly off the shelves. But do we really know how healthy these foods are? Many of the claims such as promoting weight loss are made arbitrarily with little science to back them up. Yet, everyone is looking for the perfect diet food. A professor of epidemiology at Harvard, Karin Michels, has recently stirred the pot in the health community with her opinions about coconut oil, calling it ‘pure poison’ during a presentation there.

Nutrition and Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is made of primarily saturated fats (over 80%) along with a small amount of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. One tablespoon of coconut oil is equivalent to 12 g of saturated fat, about 60% of your daily recommended amount according to the American Heart Association. Other foods rich in saturated fats are things like butter, cheese, or sausage. Saturated fats have been connected with high cholesterol, which can lead to an increased risk of heart disease. They aren’t as healthy for you as unsaturated fats but I wouldn’t go as far as calling them ‘poison’ as you wouldn’t want to eliminate them from your diet completely.

A huge argument surfaces however, around the fact that most people won’t get their daily amount of saturated fats from coconut oil given the other tasty options and it will lead to an excess of those fats in people’s diets. The fact that people who assume that this is ‘healthy’ may overload themselves with saturated fats unknowingly is possibly the point Michels was trying to make.

Unsaturated fats like olive oil, nuts, and avocados are better for your cholesterol, reducing your chances of cardiovascular disease by 30%. The types of unsaturated fats found in coconut oil have been connected with various health benefits. A study done by David Tin Win in Bangkok, Thailand suggested that the oleic acid found in the monounsaturated fat may provide added protection against breast cancer. He did studies based on Mediterranean diet of which are high in those fats. Linoleic acid found in coconut oil’s polyunsaturated fat is considered to be an essential fatty acid. This omega 6 fatty acid cannot be made by the body and is an important for healthy brain function, skin, hair growth and bone health. The amount of these good fats are however very small in coconut oil.

The bottom line is that you have to take the good with the bad; a healthy diet consists of 1/3 protein, 1/3 fat, and 1/3 carbohydrates. All of these molecules are essential in supplying energy to the body and we can’t live without any of them. If a recipe calls for a large amount of oil you may be better off using olive oil in place of the coconut oil so that you get a larger majority of those good fats in your diet, but I wouldn’t write off coconut oil entirely. As diet fads come and go, the most important thing to remember is your overall health.

Additional Information:

article by Tatiana Eaves

Image sources:

  • Coconut oil (thumbnail) Phu Thinh Co [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
  • Coconut oil (jar) By Tiia Monto, CC BY-SA 4.0,
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