I’m sure by now you’ve heard the newly released recommendations from the American Heart Association regarding coconut oil. They’ve advised against it’s use due to it’s high saturated fat content. I have a lot of respect for the AHA and for research based nutrition recommendations in general. I do not necessarily disagree with their findings or their recommendations and what follows is neither an endorsement of coconut oil or an endorsement of it’s avoidance.
But I do think this is just the absolute perfect opportunity to once again reflect on the ideas of balance, moderation and variety. When assessing for nutritional adequacy of someone’s food intake, these would be the things I consider. Over the past few years, social media, media outlets, popular culture and google have all recommended therapeutic doses of coconut oil and have made unsubstantiated claims about it’s ability to cure, prevent or treat health conditions. Drinking coconut oil or using large amounts of it when preparing meals would certainly be a huge red flag for me. That wouldn’t feel balanced, moderate or supportive of overall variety in nutrient intake.
But what if someone was using coconut oil here and there as a way to add flavor to balanced meals, cook their vegetables, or make THESE cookies (which are pretty much my favorite ever)? I probably wouldn’t bat an eye, even knowing of these current events in the nutrition world. I’ve always known coconut oil is high in saturated fat and have never been an alarmist about it.
Because that’s the thing. Focusing on one food, one food group or one food ingredient doesn’t get us anywhere. We must consider the bigger picture and how it all adds together. This is why I very strongly encourage you not to get your nutrition information from news outlets, social media, google, your friend’s friend or any individual who may have a nutrition hobby but has no actual nutrition training. Those resources usually are alarmist, like the shock factor and usually take a very one-sided stance on issues. Dietitians are the food and nutrition experts but unfortunately we tend to be included in the “they” of “they can’t make up their minds about nutrition.” I assure you that’s not the case. We don’t live or die by ONE research study or ONE news story. We take ALL of it and carefully consider it when assessing YOU and answering YOUR questions because you deserve individualized care.
Nutrition information should feel reasonable and should appeal to common sense. Let’s take soy as another example. Over the past 1-2 decades, it’s gotten a lot of publicity. Initially, news outlets highlighted research showing it could reduce the risk of certain types of cancers. When consumers heard this, they saw it as miracle and ate soy everything. As always, eventually news outlets found a study or two that found soy could actually increase the risk of certain types of cancers. Then everyone blamed soy for all their health problems and it became the newest food villain.
Reality? Soy may reduce the risk of certain types of cancers. When soy is eaten in excess of 25 grams per day (or 3-4 servings, which is way more than most people would even being to eat in a day) it may increase the risk in some vulnerable populations. The take away here is that soy can be included in the diet with no adverse effects when done in moderation, balance and variety.
Is soy or coconut oil going to heal you? No. It’s isn’t a miracle but it’s also not poison. Our current nutrition culture encourages an all-or-nothing, black or white mentality with food. Health is absolutely found somewhere in the middle, it will never be extreme.
In conclusion, you do not need to eat coconut oil. There are plenty of other oils to cook or bake or sauté or roast with. If your health conditions are such that warrant caution with saturated fat, please know you have other options. Of course I will always encourage you to seek the educated guidance of a trained nutrition professional (Registered Dietitian) who can take into consideration all of your health history, health concerns and goals for working together and work with you to determine the best course of action for YOU.
However, in general, I would also have you know that I do not think any individual food, including coconut oil, is a villain. I will continue to use it because I like the variety, flavor and satisfaction it adds to my overall dietary intake. I’m confident that including it in moderation, variety and balance will not make you vulnerable to any health issues. Looking big picture - outside just food - will be most important when assessing your health risks.
Emily Fonnesbeck RD, CD