Is the Saturated Fat in Coconut Harmful?

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If you read the ingredients in a lot of my “eat clean” recipes you’ll notice I use coconut milk and extra virgin coconut oil with regularity. My son absolutely loves coconuts (that’s him in the photo above after just cracking open a fresh one!) and likes to eat them fresh as a snack.  But, since coconut oil does contain a lot of saturated fat and since saturated fat has come under a great deal of scrutiny I thought I’d just briefly clear up any coconut confusion.

Plant-Based Saturated Fats

Verse

Animal-Based Saturated Fats

 

First of all, coconut oil does contain a large amount of saturated fat, but the plant-based saturated fat found in unrefined coconut is completely different than the saturated fat found in animal foods. It’s very important to understand that just as not all fats are created equal, all saturated fats are not created equal either. Just as there are “good fats” and “bad fats”, there are also “good saturated fats” and “bad saturated fats”.

Unrefined whole coconut meat, coconut milk and extra virgin coconut oil are “good saturated fats” and have a completely different biochemical makeup than the saturated fats found in animal foods. Epidemiological studies show the saturated fats found in animal foods (such as butter, beef, dairy, turkey, chicken, eggs, etc) is harmful to heart health but that the saturated fat found in unrefined and unprocessed coconut foods is not harmful (1). Even though many people have for years been lumping all saturated fats together and have been blaming all saturated fats for increasing the risk of heart disease, population studies of people living in the Pacific Islands and Asia, whose diets are naturally very high in unrefined coconut foods, show surprisingly low incidences of cardiovascular disease. In 1992 researchers reviewed some of the epidemiological and experimental data regarding coconut-eating groups and noted that the available population studies show coconut consumption does not lead to high-serum cholesterol nor to high coronary heart disease mortality or morbidity (2).

 

All Coconut Foods Are NOT Created Equal

 

You’ll notice I’ve been stressing that the coconut foods eaten in the population studies mentioned above have been unrefined and unprocessed. Just like all saturated fats are not equal, all coconut foods are not equal either. Most coconut foods found in commercially prepared products have been highly processed and are not at all the same as the unrefined coconut foods eaten by the heart-healthy Pacific Islanders. For example, highly processed coconut oils found in convenience items such as microwave popcorn, artificial coffee creamers, nondairy whipped toppings, vegetable shortenings, etc. have all been highly processed, stripped of innate nutrients and exposed to chemical solvents. Eating processed coconut oil is absolutely harmful. In fact, any studies that have ever shown coconut oil to have a negative effect on health have all been on processed coconut foods. Specifically, processed coconut oils contain hydrogenated oils and we now know it is the hydrogenated oils (which contain trans fats) that are harmful to your health, not the unrefined coconut.

Coconuts Fit Perfectly into an “Eat Clean” Diet

There’s even more good news about coconuts; unlike the saturated fat from animal foods, plant-based coconuts and extra virgin coconut oil that has not been refined (the “cleanest” form) will contain disease-fighting phytochemicals that are only found in plant-foods. Coconuts are also rich in lauric acid, which has very powerful anti-bacterial / anti-viral properties and is well known to support a healthy immune system and even facilitate brain function.

I am absolutely not suggesting you start gobbling bowlfuls of coconut meat or adding coconut oil by the heaping tablespoon full to every meal. I’m just saying unrefined coconut in moderation is not harmful to your health.  I’m also saying the saturated fat found in unrefined coconut can not be classified in the same category as the saturated fat found in animal foods.

If you are familiar with our first book, The Gold Coast Cureyou’ll recall we recommended keeping your saturated fat intake to less than 15 grams a day. This recommendation was based on the research we did on diet and multiple sclerosis as outlined in Roy Swank, M.D.’s The Multiple Sclerosis Diet Book among other scientific journals such as the Journal of Neurology. Limiting your saturated fat intake to 15 grams or less per day was the only “counting” we encouraged in our book and we still stand by that recommendation. However, you can still eat a good amount of coconut on a clean foods diet and not go over that limit.

 

Eat Clean! Choose a High Quality Extra Virgin Coconut Oil

 

Finally, if you like to cook, extra virgin coconut oil is a FABULOUS substitute for butter (especially in baked foods.) Just like butter, coconut oil is very heat stable, so it resists oxidation and can withstand high-heat temperatures. However, it is extremely important you choose the absolute highest quality extra virgin coconut oil and that you don’t settle for second best oils labeled “virgin” or simply “coconut oil”.  I’ve come to rely on Barlean’s Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oils for supplying the best-tasting coconut oil. In addition, my husband and I have personally met the Barlean family and we know their commitment to quality. For example, they use only hand-selected and fresh-picked coconuts for their oil; coconuts that are immature or overripe or that have fallen to the ground are nutritionally inferior and not used to make Barlean’s oils. Barlean’s oils are also carefully cold-pressed to preserve nutrients from the whole coconut and they are processed without the use of chemical solvents or hard mechanical filtration.

Vitacost.com also offers a delicious high quality extra virgin coconut oil that is easy on the wallet, too.  Click the picture link below to shop Vitacost.com coconut oil:

 

 

Beyond the Kitchen & Into the Bathroom…

I’ll save my other uses for coconut oil for another article. But for now I can tell you I have coconut oil in my kitchen AND in my bathroom!

References:

  1. N. I. Lipoeto, et al. “Dietary Intake and the Risk of Coronary Heart Disease among the Coconut-Consuming Minangkabua in West Sumutra, Indonesia,” Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition 13(2004): 377-84.
  2. H. Kaunitz and C.S. Dayrit, “Coconut Oil Consumption and Coronary Heart Disease,” Phillippine Journal of Internal Medicine 30 (1992): 165-71.
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Comments

  1. Jessica says

    I’m sure there are posts about this somewhere online, I’m honestly just too lazy to sort through everything to determine if it’s good information or not. Can anyone tell me if coconut butter spread is good or bad for you? I don’t use dairy butter and use to use smart balance, but recently switched to earth balance coconut spread. I’ve always been a little concerned about all of the saturated fats in it, but continued to use it because it’s truly amazing stuff. I’ve heard arguments stating that it is both; that it is good and that it’s bad.

  2. Vincent says

    What exactly makes saturated fat from coconuts so much healthier than animal saturated fats?
    I’ve done some research, and what I found was that:
    - the hydrocarbon chains of the fatty acids that make up the fat in coconuts are shorter than most others. Biochemistry isn’t my strong suit, but I know that a short hydrocarbon fatty acid is, as far as you body is concerned, still a fatty acid. It’ll take less time to be completely used up and it contains less chemical energy, but they’re also more abundant per gram (since they are lighter molecules).
    - someone from Harvard medical school found that coconut fat consumption has an interesting effect on cholesterol levels but wasn’t sure whether it was beneficial or harmful.

  3. Hameed Malik says

    Ivy I am your fan, this article actually clarified major confusion about saturated fats and coconut oil. Only thing I wish to know people in Siri Lanka and Kerala India eat and live on coconut but when I meet them they don’t look healthy to me both mentally and physically . Do I need my eyes checked or is there any stats that proves about they are in better shape then rest of the world.

  4. says

    I like your article points. My study has shown your views to be true, then again, I have also seen the opposite from different sites like this one. Do you have any ideas for finding more savvy ideas on natural health or related topics? I would definitely appreciate it!

  5. Karen says

    What about canned coconut milk? Is it considerend processed? I like to make icecream out of it, because I avoid dairy.

    • says

      Hi Karen,

      Canned coconut is ok! I buyorganic if possible. By the way, the coconut ice cream sounds delish!!! If you have a recipe or a link to a recipe please feel free to share it here!!

      thanks so much =)
      ivy

  6. says

    I think you’re doing a great job and your site is great. I’ve recommended it to several friends who are coping with MS, but it’s really for anyone and everyone.

    Just curious what you think of Andrew Weil coming out in Huff Post saying that saturated fat isn’t so bad anymore. Seems the people at the forefront of nutrition are saying dietary saturated fat is not only not linked to heart problems, it isn’t linked to weight gain either.

    And they aren’t even talking about grass-fed beef and pastured chickens and pork – just regular saturated fat!

    • says

      Hi Stephanie!!
      So sorry for the delay getting back to you! I didn’t know Dr. Weil posted that on Huff Post. However, I do still believe based on the research my husband (who’s an M.D.) and I have done that saturated fat from animal sources is not healthy. Saturated fat from animal food is pro-inflammatory and not good for anyone with an inflammatory condition (heart disease is even considered inflammatory). We started our research on diet bc/ I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (which is made worse by inflammation) in 1998 and my neurologist suggested I read the Swank Diet for MS, which strictly limits animal-based saturated fat. Since then I’ve learned MANY seemingly unrelated conditions share a common thread of inflammation. I think it’s best to eat animal foods in moderation as they are not anti-inflammatory due to the saturated fat. hope this helps?!

      P.S. thanks so much for the positive feedback on our site =)

  7. says

    Ivy,

    I have tried to tell people there’s a
    difference when they comment about the saturated fat, but have used extra virgin, organic coconut oil only sparingly in my cooking. Thank you for the written explanation.

    Joan, Columbia, MD

  8. Pam Thelen says

    Thanks for the helpful information, Ivy. I too have coconut oil in my bathroom. I slather it on after taking a shower. Is that what you use it for in the bathroom?

  9. says

    Thank you so much for clarifying this. I have found a great amount of mixed data on the topic and it can be very confusing for consumers. I love Barleans Fish Oil and Flax Oil, so it does not surprise me that they make a high quaility Coconut Oil. Thanks again for taking the time to clear this up!

  10. says

    Ivy,

    This is a great article! I work for Barlean’s customer service and many people call us concerned about the amount of saturated fat in coconut oil. Thank you for making this distinction between animal and plant based saturated fat.

    Best of health,

    Terernce Klein

  11. Elaine says

    Hi, great photo of Blake and the coconut!!
    He would do great on Survivor some day!!! Keep up the good work

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Many people have for years have been grouping all saturated fats together and have been blaming all saturated fats for increasing the risk of heart disease.  Based on the biochemical properties this grouping is erroneous.  Population studies of people living in the Pacific Islands and Asia (Sri Lanka[know more], Kerala – India), whose diets are naturally very high in unrefined coconut foods, show surprisingly low occurrences of cardiovascular disease. In 1992 researchers reviewed some of the epidemiological and experimental data regarding coconut-eating groups and noted that the available population studies show coconut consumption does not lead to high-serum cholesterol nor to high coronary heart disease mortality or morbidity (H. Kaunitz and C.S. Dayrit, “Coconut Oil Consumption and Coronary Heart Disease,” Phillippine Journal of Internal Medicine 30 (1992): 165-71[know more] [...]

  2. [...] • A healthy cupcake should not be made with empty-calorie / omega-6 rich vegetable oils (such as “pure” vegetable oil, corn oil, soybean oil, etc.) Instead, organic extra virgin coconut oil is an excellent vegetable oil replacement that not only delivers a deliciously decadent cupcake but is very heat stable and rich in both antioxidants and phytonutrients. (P.S. If you are worried about the saturated fat in coconut oil click HERE to read why the saturated ….) [...]

  3. [...] A truly healthy cookie should contain almost zero animal fat. This can be achieved by swapping extra virgin coconut oil for butter—and don’t worry, if you buy a high quality extra virgin coconut oil the tropical flavor intrinsic to the oil is completely undetectable when mixed with the other ingredients. (Read more about the health benefits of coconut oil HERE) [...]

  4. [...] My soup version is similar to Jackie’s, but I use slightly different vegetables. I also sauté some of the vegetables in my soup in a little bit of extra virgin coconut oil, which helps give them a super rich taste. By the way, extra virgin coconut oil is not the demon fat many people think it is. Yes, extra virgin coconut oil contains saturated fat, but it’s a tropical PLANT based saturated fat and therefore has an entirely different chemical structure than the ANIMAL saturated fat we encourage people to limit their intake of. In other words, extra virgin coconut oil absolutely cannot be put in the same category as lard, butter or bacon fat. Research showing coconut oil can be part of a heart-healthy diet goes back thirty years where scientists discovered Trobriand Islanders who consumed about 80 percent of their calories from coconut and coconut oil had extremely low levels of heart disease. More recent epidemiological studies have shown that diets rich in extra virgin coconut oil and coconuts do not, as previously thought, lead to heart disease. There’s also a correlation between high intake of coconut and lack of obesity. Some research is starting to hint that the MCT’s in extra virgin coconut oil may even increase calorie expenditure and facilitate weight loss. I’m not suggesting you start glugging coconut oil for weight loss or heart health, but I’m saying it’s absolutely not a bad fat in moderation. One quick thing to point out though…as with all foods, quality counts! You absolutely do not want to buy the cheap and processed versions of coconut oil. Make sure you look for “Extra Virgin” on the label (we especially love Barlean’s brand) to ensure your oil is nutritionally superior and has not been deodorized, bleached or refined. (For a more in-depth article on coconut oil click HERE) [...]

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