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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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August 27 2018

Dear Mark: Is Coconut Oil Pure Poison?

By Mark Sisson
29 Comments

It appears that we’re well into “outrageous media frenzy over terrible or misleading claims by nutrition scientists” season….

Last week I covered the “low-carb” and mortality study, and for this week’s edition of Dear Mark I’m covering the (latest) coconut oil controversy. A Harvard professor recently launched a dramatic harangue against coconut oil, calling it “pure poison.” Is it true this time? Are we indeed killing ourselves?

Let’s find out:

Speaking of fat, I’d be interested in Mark’s take regarding the latest attempt to put the kibosh on consumption of coconut oil–specifically, a Harvard professor saying it’s pure poison, probably because it’s so heavily saturated.

I can’t stand the stuff, personally. I don’t like anything made with coconut, and it doesn’t like me either, possibly because I’m sensitive to the overload of lauric acid. However, this and many other websites tout coconut products as being super healthful.

So is there any truth to these new claims that coconut oil is actually bad for us? Is there any hard evidence that points to related health issues? Or is this just more of the same-old, same-old that we saw with eggs, red meat, etc.?

Here’s what Shary’s talking about.

I won’t even talk about the Tokelau, a Pacific Island people who obtained most of their calories from coconut. Or the Kitavans, who ate a relatively low-fat diet but got most of their fat from coconuts. Both showed pristine metabolic health, and in the case of the Tokelau, they actually got incredibly unhealthy after switching from their coconut-rich diet to one rich in mainland foods, including seed oils.

Nor will I talk too much about the animal studies, most of which have found favorable effects on health as a result of eating coconut oil.

Let’s just focus on the human trials—the intentional studies in which actual living humans ate coconut oil and then underwent lab tests to determine the health effects. Concrete, objective effects. If coconut oil is as toxic as this Harvard professor claims, the evidence should be overwhelmingly negative. A Harvard professor would never misrepresent the evidence, right?

First, there is 2017’s Effect of a Diet Enriched with Fresh Coconut Saturated Fats on Plasma Lipids and Erythrocyte Fatty Acid Composition in Normal Adults. Healthy adults either added coconut oil or peanut fat to their diet for 3 months, and researchers examined how the different fat sources affected their biomarkers. Coconut oil increased HDL levels and the proportion of an anti-inflammatory lipid subfraction in red blood cell membranes. All told, coconut oil had a neutral to beneficial effect on health.

2017 also had Physical Form of Dietary Fat Alters Postprandial Substrate Utilization and Glycemic Response in Healthy Chinese Men. As far as coconut oil’s toxicity goes, this one was a dud. Whether the men ate coconut oil or sunflower oil made no difference in their metabolic response to meals (though when the fats were in gel form, there was an effect).

Oh, but this one sounds negative: Coconut Oil Has Less Satiating Properties Than Medium Chain Triglyceride Oil. Finally! We’ve found a kink. Unfortunately, this one isn’t bad for coconut oil either. Although MCTs proved more satiating than coconut oil, the latter was still more satiating than the control oil—vegetable oil. This is actually a strong counter to the Harvard professor’s main contention that coconut oil is bad because it’s so high in saturated fat; MCTs are pure saturated fat and performed very well here. Also, most MCT oil products come from coconut oil.

Next is The Impact of Virgin Coconut Oil and High-Oleic Safflower Oil on Body Composition, Lipids, and Inflammatory Markers in Post-Menopausal Women.  There were no differences in body composition. Coconut oil raised total cholesterol, HDL, and LDL, but it was a wash. Both groups ended up with the same TC/HDL ratio (one of the best markers of overall heart health we have). One person had increased inflammation due to coconut oil, but most of the others had lower inflammation. Overall, though, the “impact of VCO and SO on other [inflammatory] cytokines varied on an individual basis.” The implication is that different people had different responses to the different oils. This is known, and it’s good to see researchers admit that people are different and the individual response arguably matters more than the statistical average of the responses.

In 2016, this came out: Postprandial serum endotoxin in healthy humans is modulated by dietary fat in a randomized, controlled, cross-over study. At first glance, it doesn’t look good for coconut oil. Compared to fish oil (which reduced it) and high omega-6 oil (which was neutral), coconut oil eaten with the meal increased the levels of serum endotoxin. Endotoxins are produced by bacteria in our guts and tend to increase systemic inflammation when they make it into our bodies. Coconut oil was pretty good at helping endotoxin make it past the gut and into the body. The good news is that this did not increase systemic inflammation—but keep in mind that these were “healthy humans.” An increase in serum endotoxins may have stronger effects on inflammation in unhealthy or obese humans. Another bit of good news is that pairing coconut oil with, say, fatty fish should mitigate any rise in serum endotoxins.

There’s also A Randomized Study of Coconut Oil Versus Sunflower Oil on Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Patients with Stable Coronary Heart DiseaseThe title tells it: patients with heart disease added either coconut oil or sunflower oil to their diets for two years. Researchers tracked basic risk factors and the number of “events,” or heart attacks. Despite people with actual heart disease eating the “worst” oil possible, “there was no statistically significant difference in the anthropometric, biochemical, vascular function, and in cardiovascular events after 2 years.” No difference.

Heck, according to 2016’s The Effect of Coconut Oil Pulling on Streptococcus Mutans Count in Saliva in Comparison to Chlorexidine Mouthwash, the coconut oil “myth” all the “experts” love to malign—that swishing coconut oil in your mouth can reduce harmful bacterial colonization—is actually true.

It’s obvious just from looking at these very recent studies, even some of the ones with negative or neutral effects, that coconut oil is far from poison. “Experts” do themselves no credit when they ignore and misrepresent the evidence like this.

Luckily, we can read for ourselves. And we can try for ourselves.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Thoughts on this coconut oil controversy—or other health related media hype? Other studies you’d like me to look at? Have a great week.

References:

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29 thoughts on “Dear Mark: Is Coconut Oil Pure Poison?”

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  1. Coconut oil is awesome… wild tallow is even awesomer!

    Based on the native wisdom of our early ancestors, tallow provides the same nourishing fat (kidney fat; suet) that our ancestors selectively hunted and prized for robust strength and health.

    Based on the ancient ancestral wisdom that “like supports like.” Every animal cell (in body and brain) is made of a lipid bilayer that’s approximately 50% saturated fat. We need this fatty substrate for healthy cells… we need healthy cells for healthy tissues, organs, glands… we need healthy physiology to express the best version of ourselves.

    Tallow not only supplies fatty acids like CLA, oleic acid and palmitic acid but also contains some fat solubles. This combination provides the matrix for absorption and assimilation of the fat soluble activators which supports and affects virtually every biological system… yes, coconut oil and tallow are that fundamental!

    Coconut oil, tallow and other saturated fats provide support for fertility and hormone health, regulates the immune system and provides deep nourishment for growth and development (healthy bones, teeth, gums and skin).

    FAVORITE FATS [TOP 5]

    1. Bone Marrow
    2. Tallow
    3. Ghee
    4. Coconut Oil
    5. Lard
    6. Duck Fat… are you you kidding me!

  2. Dose makes the poison, right ?

    No “poison” for sure. But no health food as some claim either. Like any other oil, do not consume too much of it, or not at all. You won’t miss anything.

  3. My thoughts…

    As with most any food item, nothing is meant to be consumed in large quantities, especially if it is not available in nature. Grok did not have access to a tub of coconut oil so he was not frying his eggs in it and adding it to his coffee, let alone on a daily basis. I do not think we should purposely avoid coconut oil or other saturated fats but we also should not swing the pendulum the other way and make a point of consuming large quantities of them either. The amount of saturated fat consumption should probably be individualized based on genotype (such as ApoE) and/or individual responses (think hormones, advanced lipid numbers, etc). I, myself, am heterozygous for ApoE 4, which the latest science suggests I should not go overboard on saturated fats due alterations in cholesterol transport and increased risk for atherosclerosis. When I went primal and indulged daily on coconut oil, full-fat dairy and butter my and LDL increased close to 60 points so this combined with my ApoE4 status has caused me to cut back on the amount of saturated fat I consume. I don’t avoid it. I don’t demonize it. But I don’t drink bulletproof coffee and I don’t eat spoonfuls of coconut oil or douse my veggies in grassfed butter anymore. Could this be ok for some people? Maybe. But I know Grok didn’t do that. Do I eat the fat off of my grassfed steaks? You bet. And I bet Grok did that as well.

    1. Exactly.- to compare coconut oil (mechanically derived, clay filtered and packaged in a tub) to traditional Kitavan or Tokelauan whole coconut use (meat, water and hand derived milk) is also a fallacy. First principles would suggest added processed fats have the same potential for future disaster for the low carber that added processed sugars have had for the low fatter (epidemiological and 2 year studies will never show this – you’d need 20 year controlled lab studies to prove the point- never going to happen). Neither side can make a firm comment on this, dietary research can’t – nor likely will ever – be able to sort this out. There are far too many variables. It is probably (which is all that can ever reallly be said – certainty doesn’t exist in diet) best to minimalise use of processed/concentrated fat, carbohydrate, protein, vitamin or mineral products!

  4. SO glad you addressed this! I came here today hoping you’d done something specifically on it–my brother was being a bit smarmy about it this weekend and now I can retort!

  5. Here’s an interesting question:
    Big proponent of coconut oil (smdiscovered it 7 yrs ago when diagnosed celiac). I can cook with it and eat it….but my exterior has a super strange response: it CRAZY dries out my skin. Particularly, destroys my hands and cuticles if I ever try to use it as moisturizer.

    So, given the extreme external response, should I be messing around with eating it (and full fat aroy-d coconut milk)? I’m always a little worried that it might be affecting internal surfaces negatively as well.

    Thoughts? (Thanks!)

    1. Like you, coconut oil does weird things to my skin and lips. It also gives me GI issues if I consume it. It doesn’t matter how healthful something is supposed to be. If it causes problems for us for is as individuals, then it’s probably best avoided.

    2. I don’t have an answer, but I do have the same question! I eat coconut oil with no problems that I’m aware of, but can’t use it on my skin – it gives me a dry, itchy rash (the kind most people would put coconut oil on!). I have also wondered whether it does any harm internally, so I hope someone has an answer.

    3. Coconut oil is a more drying oil that is higher on the comedogenic scale – this means it can cause breakouts. It’s very common for people to experience drying when using coconut oil, which can seem crazy because oil = moisture, right? But not all oils are moisturizing. Castor oil is another example of an oil that is drying.
      BTW, I used coconut oil for about a year externally before I realized it was making my chest break out. Oops! Now I only eat it =)

  6. I lose a lot of respect for nutritionists’ advice when I see lists telling me which breakfast cereals are best:
    1. Cheerios
    2. Honey Bunches of Oats
    3. Raisin Bran
    4. Honey Nut Cheerios
    5. Cinnamon Toast Crunch
    6. Lucky Charms
    7. Frosted Mini-Wheats
    8. Froot Loops
    9. Frosted Flakes

    People seriously take the time to read the boxes, compare sugar, protein, and fiber content and then make these lists. It boggles my mind. Did they miss the study where the mice who ate the boxes were better off than the ones who ate the cereal? I take the “coconut oil is pure poison” “study” with a few grains of salt. I say, pick your poison.

    1. Probably because a nutritionist has no education or credentials. Dietitians are a better source for nutrition information. Although not all dietitians are up on the latest science. As we can see by the “Coconut oil is poison” guy, nutrition professionals are still people with their own biases.

  7. I work with a person from the Philippines who grew up on coconuts, coconut oil, fish, etc. What they could gather from their land and that was about it. She, although poor, was healthy growing up with that diet.
    I use coconut oil for cooking, make up removal and to as an “ointment” on whatever cuts we may get. Works well and most importantly I am not dead from it.

  8. What I find INCREDIBLY interesting is this part that Mark included: In people with heart disease, after adding either coconut oil or sunflower oil to their diet for 2 years, “there was no statistically significant difference in the anthropometric, biochemical, vascular function, and in cardiovascular events after 2 years.”

    Now that’s a point against our vilification of vegetables isn’t it? Wonder what’s up with that.

    1. Yes, rather depressing to read that sunflower oil did at least as well as coconut oil in this 2 year study.

  9. Mark,

    Here’s an article that just popped up at me today that you might be interested in: https://www.msn.com/en-us/lifestyle/lifestyle-buzz/science-says-this-is-officially-the-length-of-a-perfect-night-of-sleep/ar-BBMvRG7?ocid=spartandhp

    We can all rest easy (pun intended)! The length of a perfect night’s sleep is… 6-8 hours (apparently).

    I can’t imagine living on 6 hours of sleep every night. Something would give and I’d crash by the end of the week. On the other side of it, they’re saying getting more than 8 hours of sleep has its detriments and should be avoided. I have a feeling all of these studies they studied only used participants who were stuck on conventional wisdom (eating all the carbs, avoiding the sun like the plague, avoiding fat like the plague, gorging on processed foods, etc.) and not attuned to their bodies or nature. Do you mind sharing your take on this? Thank you!

  10. Good day Mark.
    I am new to this primal lifestyle but becoming more and more intrigued as I read and learn more about it. I am almost 40 with two beautiful daughters and a fantastic wife. I am more than comfortable applying the philosophies of the primal lifestyle into my life, but I am somewhat hesitant in introducing it to my young daughters, three and four years old. Is there any studies or recommendations for an age when this diet/lifestyle would be appropriate for a young developing body such as my daughters.
    I apologize if this question seems silly but as stated I am new to this, and I am just seeking answers.

    Thanks for all you do
    Jed

    1. At such a young age any issues they weren’t born with haven’t had much time to really develop so no need to and shouldn’t try a very low carb diet (which primal isn’t and keto is) on them. But forming a habit now of just avoiding grains, keeping the fruits whole, and focusing on animal and tropical fats (coconut and palm), lots of fresh veg of all sorts that you can handle, and enough animal protein (with the skin, gelatin, and even the nasty bits if you can manage that) to keep them satiated is about it. They’ll handle the activity.

      1. I left out monounsaturated fats in olive oil and avocadoes. But that goes without saying, right? Maybe not. We forget what we didn’t know once we know it.

    2. Hi Jed,

      Look up Australian chef Pete Evans if you want information on a low-carb, no-carb diet for kids. He has 2 young daughters.

      Coconut oil is currently being studied for positive effect on cognition in dementia/AD patient. The Harvard professor lost all credibility when she called it pure poison.

  11. 10 years primsal. cholesterol high ( dont care ) HDL to triclyceride retio 0.5. Wham bam thanks mam.

  12. The Harvard scientist is an epidemiologist. You couldn’t pick a worse field to determine one ingredient is the culprit. What? She looked at a meta-analysis of food journals? Nice try.

  13. Mark, I’d love to see your thoughts on the recent study claiming that any alcohol is always bad for health. How does this jive with the potential benefits we’ve heard about over the past many years?

  14. Hmmm…I am not too swayed by a single researcher, Harvard oriented or not, coming out and declaring that coconut oil is akin to Socrates’ hemlock, because it’s obviously in the name of conventional wisdom. I haven’t seen studies or even anecdotes to support what she said in the first place. All I saw were reports of what she declared and no substantiation. I’m surprised that wasn’t mentioned in the DailyApple post. However, I must say, many of those studies that Mark cited aren’t exactly the ringing endorsements of coconut oil that I expected to see. Sure, it’s not poison..but, where are the health benefits that I’ve come to expect? I don’t exactly consider “satiating” and “no more adverse effects than sunflower oil” to be colossal health benefits. And of course, the endotoxin study was out of left field and was semi-discouraging, though, I’m not sure what endotoxin permeation means outside of the context in which it would normally occur.

  15. Thanks, Mark for writing and sharing this very important topic. It’s really curious to know the reality of the coconut oil. Thanks again for addressing this very useful question “Is coconut oil pure poison?”.