Why I’m Not Going Nuts for Coconut

Leo Pemberton urges you to choose your oils wisely

Coconut oil is everywhere – touted as the new miracle food, beauty product, mouthwash (aka ‘oil pulling’) and even as a home cleaning product. The sisters Hemsley + Hemsley recently wrote an article for Marie-Claire titled ‘Why Coconut Oil Should Be Your New Diet Staple’ and author Ella Woodward (Deliciously Ella) has called it ‘a total wonder product’ and a ‘super food in the kitchen’. In their droves, health-conscious cooks are shunning other oils in favour of this white fat, which sells for as much as £20 a tub. The Paleo and clean eating obsessives even add a tablespoon or two to their morning coffee (retch).

4031507140_35ca846d90_zSo, what claims are being made for coconut oil that might explain its meteoric rise? The most widely touted benefit is that despite being a saturated fat – up to 92% – it contains ‘lauric acid’ which raises HDL, or ‘good’ cholesterol. It’s also said to contain impressive levels of Vitamin E, antioxidants and omega 3 fatty acids as well as boasting a high smoke point for frying. Seemingly legit websites claim myriad health benefits: Wellness Mama’s ‘101 Uses for Coconut Oil’ blog post, for instance, recommends it as an excellent sunscreen and even suggests massaging the oil into the perineum after childbirth – what versatility!

With any new wonder food – chia, goji berries, bee pollen, unicorn balls – I won’t jump on the bandwagon if the claims simply don’t add up. Us health professionals maintain a pesky insistence on rigorous research and as a responsible dietitian, I need to see the evidence.

So: the science. Fat is an essential part of our diet – a rich energy source (at 9 calories per gram), providing fat-soluble vitamins and enhancing food taste. Whilst the debate is far from over, saturated fats are known to increase our levels of LDL or ‘bad’ cholesterol. Over time, this lays down tiny plaques in our arteries, leading to a ‘hardening’ a bit like limescale in a kettle. Eventually this can cause a blockage leading to heart attack, or break off, increasing the risk of a stroke or embolism. Conversely, HDL – the ‘good’ cholesterol – is protective as it hustles LDL away to the liver to be disposed of before it has time to stick to our arteries. Variables like smoking and activity levels also play a role in our cholesterol production, but fat intake is a key factor. We know that foods which contain the highest levels of monounsaturates – olive and rapeseed oils, avocado, nuts and seeds for example – not only lower ‘bad’ and total cholesterol levels, but can also help raise the amount of HDL. A triple whammy of heart-healthy benefits in one! Polyunsaturates such as sunflower oil lower the total but also the ‘good’ cholesterol, making them a sound second choice.

But whilst research is limited, the evidence so far is that coconut oil raises all types of cholesterol. This is most likely due to the fact that lauric acid typically makes up only half of the saturates in coconut oil, and in any case it’s one of the three highest cholesterol-raising fatty acids. Olive oil has a much better nutrient-profile at a fraction of the price. And the high smoke point? Well, just because it is good for baking or frying, doesn’t necessarily make it any healthier.

The huge number of cholesterol tests I perform allow me to identify trends, and increasingly I’m seeing disordered results from those regularly consuming coconut oil. What I witness in clinic is that the best profiles typically come from those who include plenty of monos, limited saturates and regular activity.

Let’s not, though, throw the whole coconut out with the bathwater. Coconut milk is a key ingredient in many Asian dishes, coconut water – whilst extortionately expensive bottled – contains rehydrating electrolytes, the fibre-containing fleshy part can count as one of your five-a-day and of course the empty half shells are unrivalled for horse-hoof sound effects in school plays.

Coconut oil, as with butter, is fine for limited and occasional use but despite clinical trials aimed at establishing benefits of virgin coconut, it hasn’t been possible conclusively to evaluate the effects. So where there’s a better option – such as heart-healthy rapeseed oil, ideal for high temperature cooking – why take the risk? Why not stick with what we know for certain: that a Mediterranean-style diet rich in olive oil, grains, low-fat dairy, fish, pulses and limited meat is best for our heart?


Leo Pemberton RD
Twitter: @LeoNutrition
Facebook: Your London Nutritionist



Image credit: Hafiz Issadeen

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  • factorygal

    While I agree with Mr. Pembleton that coconut oil is receiving far too many accolades, I must question his advocating the use of rapeseed oil which has not had nearly enough long term study to be called heart healthy. I also don’t buy into the idea of saturated fat and cholesterol being bad for us. There are other factors involved such as sugars, insulin and leptin resistance. But I do agree that coconut oil is being used as some kind of cure all oil. Discernment is very necessary!

    • Leo Pemberton

      It’s Pemberton actually! But thanks for your comments factorygal. Important to remember that the cholesterol within a food (e.g. eggs, shellfish…) does not contribute significantly to blood cholesterol but dietary fats do affect the profile, with monounsaturates having the best impact on lowering TC:HDL ratios. Rapeseed contains approx 60% monounsaturated fat (most oils are a combo of fatty acids) but is more heat stable than some olive oils so can be a better choice for higher temperature cooking. It has also been shown to significantly reduce LDL cholesterol:
      Certainly agree that the debate is ongoing, but the effects of ‘monos’ are now well established. The saturated fat debate is far from over but dairy sources appear to be much less harmful than from other sources.

  • lovestruck

    thanks for this. i’m feeling a bit overwhelmed and confused at the moment about what’s good to eat. other than paying for a private dietitian, is there somewhere decent we can go to for advice about food?

    • Leo Pemberton

      I really empathise! We are bombarded with completely conflicting messages around food & health. I try to do my bit by breaking down some of the myths around nutrition. Firstly, I always encourage my patients to try not to think of foods (or food groups) as simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but moderation and avoiding extreme intakes or restriction. Be careful of biased websites, often funded by food manufactures or supplement complains. To get to the bottom of the latest sensational news stories, NHS Choices are pretty good at summarising reported studies, for nutrition and heart health: bhf.org.uk have excellent resources. The British Dietetic Association have a range of ‘food facts’ covering topics such as weight loss, detoxing and glycaemic index (GI): https://www.bda.uk.com/foodfacts/home

      • lovestruck

        wow, thank you so much, that’s so helpful! I really appreciate that – you’ve just made a slightly anxious person much calmer!

  • Ulrike

    Thank you thank you thank you! I have been shaking my head in disbelief for the past year or so as every so called lifestyle blogger / “foodie” and their mother have been singing the praises of coconut oil and – much worse – putting it on a pedestal above things like olive oil (an ingredient that has been part of the mediterranean diet for hundreds of years with hundreds of centenarians to prove its benefits).

  • Sara MacGregor

    For cooking olive oil or butter is better than sunflower oil http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-33675975

  • Suse

    This is enormously helpful. I did loads of research online on coconut oil and decided I couldn’t ignore the ‘facts’ and bought a jar to replace olive oil in cooking. It’s a bit of a faff, and makes everything slightly sweet. I’ll be glad to shelve it guilt-free.

    As an overnight hand cream though – I’m converted :)

  • http://sarahjanesobsessions.blogspot.com/ Sarah Jane

    I’m using it on my face at night as a cleansing balm, it works just as well as my Bodyshop balm, it doesn’t sting the eyes and removes all my makeup easy. I did try use it for cooking once but I didn’t find it that easy to use as a oil, I found my food stuck to the pan so give up on it. Loving it for the night cleanse though, so much cheaper and long lasting.

  • https://instagram.com/gothiquealice/ Molly

    Yes, I’m not a mega fan of coconut oil at all. I never ingest it and it never seemed to anything for my skin. But it is Life Changing for minor/medium burns! I had a chemical burn from an IV after an operation, pretty nasty, nothing was working, in desperation I slathered it in coconut oil and within a day it was healing, with the pain greatly reduced. Within a couple of days it had healed up and I have no scar. I have also used it since on kitchen-type burns and it is miraculous.

  • Jude

    I’m not sure about eating it, but it’s a game changer if you have eczema or psoriasis. Genuinely miraculous.

  • Magical Unicorn

    I lean towards Paleo, so my go-to source is usually Mark’s Daily Apple, as his posts are well researched. Here’s what he says about coconut oil http://www.marksdailyapple.com/coconut-oil-health-benefits/

    There are a few benefits not mentioned in the article above, but basically if you’re going to use it go organic and virgin!

  • Laura

    Great post! Thanks for this sensible and well researched information.

    A couple of years ago, I started including it occasionally in my diet – 5gm stirred into porridge for example. When I mentioned it to my GP, he raised his eyebrow and asked why I was including coconut oil (he knows I am generally sensible when it comes to food fads/health), at which point I re-evaluated the situation and went back to my usual sources of fat – a couple of avocados here and there, olive oil, nuts etc. Also, the first time I ate coconut oil (in aforementioned porridge) I put a bit too much in and found it to be rather laxative…

  • Hollie

    It’s the sunscreen recommendation that’s getting me. I despair.

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