A Harvard professor wants you to reconsider the dangers of consuming coconut oil, a popular trend within the wellness crowd as of late.
Self-appointed “wellness experts” and “health gurus” online promote coconut oil for its immune support, digestive help and as a healthier fat for cooking.
But in her German-language talk “Coconut Oil and Other Nutritional Errors,” Karin Michels, an adjunct professor at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, calls coconut oil “pure poison” and “one of the worst foods” she can name.
Michels is also the the director of the Institute for Prevention and Tumor Epidemiology at the University of Freiburg in Germany, where the talk took place July 10.
While coconut oil has been touted for its fat-burning and hunger-curbing properties by doctors and dietitians alike, there are no studies showing serious health benefits linked to coconut oil consumption, a fact Michels repeats during her lecture.
Still, there is a disconnect between public and health expert perception in the United States. A 2016 survey by The New York Times showed that 72 percent of the public versus 37 percent of certified nutritionists believe coconut oil is “healthy.”
In her talk, Michels dispels the myth that coconut oil is healthy by explaining that the oil poses a greater risk to heart health than lard, as it contains high levels of saturated fatty acids – a type of acid which can clog arteries.
Saturated fatty acids, unlike unsaturated fatty acids, are typically solid at room temperature. The American Heart Association recommends the average person consume only around 11 grams of saturated fat per day, or about 5 percent of your total daily calories.
Michels’ talk comes one year after the AHA updated its dietary guidelines, which now recommend people avoid the saturated fatty acids found in coconut oil.
In an advisory released last year, the AHA added that coconut oil has “no known offsetting favorable effects,” and could increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, a known cause of cardiovascular disease.
Disagreement among experts
But experts can’t seem to agree on how much saturated fat people should consume in a healthy diet, or if it should be avoided altogether. A 2015 review published in the BMJ, formerly known as the British Medical Journal, which looked at more than 70 previous studies on similar issues, suggests that people who cut the fat out of their diet may not lower their risk of developing heart disease later in life.
Dr. John Wilkins, an assistant professor of cardiology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine and a practicing cardiologist at Northwestern Medicine, thinks that the solution to the great coconut oil debate isn’t avoidance, but balance.
“(The guidelines) don’t mean that you can’t have any saturated fats in your diet, but to minimize your intake, as a higher percentage of saturated fats in one’s diet can cause higher cholesterol levels and a higher chance of developing heart disease,” Wilkins says.
Wilkins agrees, however, that there is not “clear, decisive evidence” about the effects of coconut oil specifically on the body.
In the interim, most international health guidelines recommend eating saturated fat, like that found in coconut oil, in moderation.