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Is Coconut Oil Healthy?


Health claims and public opinion about coconut oil swing wildly back and forth. Is this faddish fat a healthy superfood? Or is it a toxic poison? We’ve waded through the hype to find out.

spoon full of coconut oil with a raw half coconut. Is it healthy?

Is there any other ingredient with quite as much star power as coconut oil? (Well, maybe kale…)

For a while it seemed like coconut oil could do it all. It tasted rich and indulgent, had a long shelf life, it was vegetarian and “natural,” and it didn’t have the unhealthy reputation of butter or trans fat.

During the golden era of coconut oil, families were baking with the stuff, putting it in their coffee, and even using it as a moisturizer on their kids’ skin.

But then the tides of public opinion started to turn. Nutritionists began speaking out about this oil–a saturated fat–as being no different from other unhealthy saturated fats.

In the summer of 2018, Harvard professor Karin Michels gave a lecture in which she called it “pure poison,” adding that it’s “one of the worst foods you can eat.”

So what’s the real story behind coconut oil? Does this tropical fat belong in your pantry and in the foods you serve to your kids? Let’s dig in to our most current understanding about this popular oil and nutrition.

What Kind of Fat is Coconut Oil?

Coconut oil is a saturated fat made from pressing raw or cooked coconut flesh.

Compared to butter and other saturated fats from animal sources, coconut oil’s fatty acids are arranged in shorter chains, called “medium chain fatty acids.”

Usually you’ll find two main types on the shelf: virgin or cold-pressed oil, and refined oil. Virgin oil is pressed from raw coconuts, has a strong coconutty flavor, and contains high levels of polyphenols that may have an anti-inflammatory effect.

Refined coconut oil is bleached and heat-treated, which creates a neutral flavor that some people prefer for cooking. But the heavy processing of refined oil damages the structure of the fatty acids and antioxidants in the oil, creating a strong cholesterol-raising effect. If avoiding unhealthy oils are important to you, you should bypass refined coconut oil.

But Saturated Fat is Bad for Us. Should We Avoid Coconut Oil Entirely?

The short answer is… maybe not. (So maybe there isn’t a clear, short answer!)

It’s true that many nutrition professionals and organizations, including the FDA, recommend limiting saturated fat intake. Large studies have linked saturated fat to health problems like high cholesterol and heart disease.

In the last few years however, the saturated fat picture has grown less clear. A few studies have found that full-fat dairy products (which are rich in saturated fat) correlate with surprising health outcomes like obesity prevention in adults and a lower body mass index in children, compared to populations who drink low-fat or fat-free dairy.

We also know that populations who consume a lot of coconut oil (as in the Phillipines and the South Pacific) have low rates of heart disease compared to Americans.

So the evidence is mixed right now, but our stance is this: fat, as a macronutrient, remains part of a healthy diet for kids and adults. And balancing the types of fat you eat and serve your family is a smart strategy. In this approach, there’s room for virgin coconut oil.

Woman at the stove about to spoon coconut oil into a pan for cooking.

The Bottom Line

The most important steps you can take to set the stage for your kids’ lifelong health is to serve a variety of whole foods daily, including plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables.

Coconut oil is just one piece of the dietary puzzle, and it’s neither a poison, nor a superfood. It makes sense to vary your oils just as you would any other part of your kids’ diet.

So the bottom line is: keep focusing on the big picture, and enjoy coconut oil in moderation.

Recipes Using Virgin Coconut Oil

Toasted Coconut Pumpkin Bread

Coconut Snowballs

Natalie Monson

I'm a registered dietitian, mom of 4, avid lover of food and strong promoter of healthy habits. Here you will find lots of delicious recipes full of fruits and veggies, tips for getting your kids to eat better and become intuitive eaters and lots of resources for feeding your family.

Learn More about Natalie

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You can’t lump coconut oil with other refined oils when it’s easy these days to find it unrefined. We don’t use coconut oil for the vitamins and minerals anyway, we use it for the lauric acid and monolaurin both of which there are significant doses in a couple tablespoons of unrefined coconot oil. Also, I think you have acknowledged on this website before the difference between new-age fats and healthy fats. Yet, this post seems to go against that. We avoid canola oil because our contry’s corn is a gentically modified disaster, and there are too many options for contaminants in other vegetable oils. (My oldest child has autism and we are extra strict about toxins as well as diet choices). My kids have a 75% raw diet, so whole foods are important to us. We use coconut oil in their gfcf pancake mix in which I mix pureed vegetables for an extra kick.

Am I missing something in your post, or reading it wrong?

Great Post! I have never looked at oils that way, but I also tend to focus on the flavor of the oil I’m using in relation to the dish I am making. That being said, we don’t use tons of oil…only when needed. Next time I am advised to use one oil over another, I’m going to refer them to this post. Thank You!

Thank you for commenting Sara! I definitely knew in posting this that I would have many who to disagree. My point here is whole foods vs. refined foods, and in order to get coconut oil out of a coconut, it must go through a refining process. To find unrefined oil would be impossible by this definition.

However, you do make an excellent point about GMO’s. And I’m definitely not advocating the purchase of other oils as a better alternative. We just choose to limit our exposure altogether. And to reiterate my final paragraph, we are not anti-fat! I believe coconuts have amazing health benefits for sure, including lauric acid. In fact 50% of coconut flesh is lauric acid.

… and I might add that although there is more lauric acid in a TBL of coconut oil vs a TBL of flesh, with the vitamins and minerals in the coconut flesh, fats become more readily absorbed or bioavailable. So, it could be that you are able to use more lauric acid from the coconut flesh itself.

Still love the debate! Glad to read anything contrary you may have.

It’s amazing how marketing can totally dupe us. I never bought coconut oil (really can’t stand it), but we do use olive oil. Cold pressed–if it makes any difference.

I agree with you, the less processed the food is the better.

Thanks Amy! Totally agree that coconut flesh would be fabulous. My 3 year old with autism has the classic picky-eater issues piled on top of texture and sensory issues, so he won’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. Someday I hope!

I personally have found coconut oil to be wonderful for replacing all oils in cooking. Too often we do not get enough “good fats” in our diet. I have an underactive thyroid and I feel so much better because of it! It has also done wonders for our skin. 🙂

I just have to say, this is why I love you guys. You keep it real without falling for all the fads. And you make food that I will actually eat. I had been wondering if coconut oil was really worth it, but I don’t like the taste of coconut at all, so I didn’t want to buy it. Now I know I don’t have to. I’ll just stick to using what I know and trying to eat more whole fruits and veggies.

I totally agree with Sara! Coconut oil is STILL a very healthy alternative to almost any other oil out there. We need healthy fats in our diet, especially when eating a whole foods and high raw diet. Cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil is extracted from the olive similarly to how extra virgin coconut oil is extracted from the coconut, and yet we don’t even question it’s use. Coconut oil also has so many other uses for the whole body: for hair, skin, acne, diaper rash; it’s an anti-fungal, antiantimicrobial, antioxidant, antibacterial and so much more! I love it and will continue to incorporate it as a healthful part of our diet and life-style.

Thank you for this post. I have been so confused about oils. We are trying to eat as many unprocessed foods as possible and this oil thing is bothering me! I use olive oil to cook and roast with but have been reading that it is bad to use at high temperatures. I have heard to use coconut oil and lard or butter but with a strong history of heart disease in my family I was extremely concerned about the saturated fat content in coconut oil. Do you feel that it is ok to cook/roast with olive oil? What kind of oils do you suggest? I really enjoy your website and refer to if almost daily!

I agree with your points on the whole coconut being more nutritious and that your should limit cooking oils in general. However, we all have need for a cooking oil from time to time, even on a predominantly whole foods diet. I recommend coconut oil because it has a higher smoke point, not because I think it is a miracle food. Olive oil is widely used in sauteeing, but it has a much lower smoke point and really should not be heated.

I also agree with the previous poster who mentioned GMO’s. Canola oil and vegetable oil (mostly made from soy) are highly GMO unless you buy organic varieties.

Another benefit of coconut oil, is that you can also use it in recipes that call for shortening. This eliminates the nasty trans-fats but still imparts the same properties to your recipe.

A lot of my fellow RD’s dismiss coconut oil because of the saturated fat content. However since it is a plant source and not an animal source of saturated fat, it doesn’t affect the body the same. I recommend Dr. Mary Enig’s research for more info on that.

So do I think coconut oil is all that it is hyped up to be? No. However I do think it does deserve a place in the kitchen. Sorry to have written a book 🙂

Thanks for your comment Jennifer! You actually bring up some great points, and I would agree, if someone will be using oils, it is a better alternative than others, of course.

I have to say I’m in the pro-coconut oil camp. I think that the oil is more so extracted as opposed to processed (I know.. tit or tat), although that’s really reserved to virgin coconut oil. That’s the tricky part about processing, that even things like pasteurization (i.e. milk) are technically processed since the food is being treated in some way. In addition I was actually introduced to coconut oil by the Center for Processed Free Living, which gave me my first wake up call about processed foods. I use it in my kids baked goods because the majority of the saturated fats in coconut oil are medium chain fatty triglycerides, which don’t raise serum cholesterol levels. One of those medium chains fats is lauric acid, which has anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties when metabolized by the body and can help heal the lining of the gut. Interesting food for thought, and a great discussion that is well worth having. Thanks!

Thanks for commenting Jill! I am surprised by the volumes of people who love their coconut oil. There is always another side in the nutrition debates isn’t there!

There is extensive peer reviwed research that virgin coconut oil has helped in the treatment of autism. It is known to not only boost the immune system, but kill candida in the intestinal tract. It is also a ketogenic. The body converts the MCT’s in coconut oil into ketones. Ketones have a huge effect on brain growth. Ordinarily, glucose powers our brain cells. However, when the brain is plagued with chronic inflammation, irritation, and immune over-activation, as seen in autistic children, brain cells have difficulty processing glucose. Ketones bypass the defect in glucose metabolism and provides the brain with the energy it needs to function and develop properly. Dr. Bruce Fife, author of “Stop Autism Now” has researched and cited this and much more regarding coconut oil and how it is used in the reversal of autism spectrum disorders.

I’ll admit I totally fell for the coconut oil fad as well even if that meant dropping $10 on just a small jar, eek! I read another article a few weeks back about pretty much the same thing, it’s not that healthy fats are bad for us, it’s just that oils weren’t meant to be so concentrated into a jar and it’s way too easy to over do it! I only use oil sparingly currently, but I’m glad to know that I can find something a little cheaper to use 🙂 I really like the concept of using onions and mushrooms for moisture like I learned in Forks over Knives! But that probably wouldn’t be the yummiest for baking 🙂 but I’ve had a lot of success baking without oil whatsoever, as long as I use parchment paper for lining!

I don’t disagree w/ what you have said. All processed oils have the same basic characteristic of providing very little or none of the nutrition that its food of origin has. However, one benefit of coconut oil over other oils (besides being so delicious in things like stir fry) is that its natural shelf life is longer than other oils. From what I understand, it has shelf life of about 3 yrs before going rancid, whereas other oils are not nearly so shelf stable. That makes a difference to me when I am trying to keep longer term storage.

That is something I didn’t know Sabrina! I have had many bottles of oil turn rancid in my cupboards, so that is definitely something to consider when choosing an oil!
Thanks for the link Holly!

So you are saying coconut oil is unhealthy, what about your plates you have made in china, what about the processed recipes you make and want people to eat.

What I’m saying is coconut oil in nutritionally inferior and I wouldn’t waste my money on it. I’m tired of it being promoted as some sort of super food. I am not telling anyone to cease all consumption, although I do recommend no one consumes plastics!

I wanted to say thanks for this info. I had never really thought about coconut oil being a processed food. I thought of it only as a healthy oil with lauric acid and anti fungal benefits. I definitely agree that my family should get our fats from foods such as eggs, raw milk, avocados, cheese, coconut meat and such. Thanks for reminding me of the marketing issues. I also have to say that I don’t like the idea of my oil being shipped from so far away. I REALLY like the idea of getting fats from whole foods and using coconut oil sparingly AS a healthy cooking fat. Before I read your article, I was really buying the health promotion of this oil. I regularly buy 5 gallons of it and use it liberally as a health tonic. I have a different view now because of your post and the comparison of the whole food coconut versus the extracted oils.

Thank you Theresa!! You have no idea how much I appreciate your kind words. I was really hoping to get people to think, and that is the point 🙂

Cody Ross- I’m going to have to stop approving your comments unless you can give me an actual valid email address so we can have a real conversation. Our plates are BPA free. I don’t know why you are so upset about this! Do you sell coconut oil?

It would behoove everyone posting here to take the time to do our own research not only about coconut oil and its benefits, but about Dr. Joel Furlman, the Nutritional Research Foundation he heads, who the “associates”/partners are in that foundation, what percentage of soy is GMO (in the high 90% range, corn as well). There are other medical professionals who have done extensive nutritional research besides this family practice physician…Dr. Mark Hyman is one. He has written many excellent books addressing the actual cause of disease rather than merely focusing on symptoms. Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride is another, who wrote the GAPS Diet…specifically geared for those wrestling with autism, ADHD, and other neurological disorders. A cardiologist who’s name alludes me at this moment wrote a book entitled “Wheat Belly”..that is absolutely excellent. The medicine industrial complex is not, and has not been HEALTH FOCUSED. It is and has been MEDICINE FOCUSED. There’s a difference. Dr. Mark Hyman, Dr. Natasha Campbell McBride, and others like them have and are beginning to do the hard work that has been needed in the health professions for a long time. A google search is not that difficult…and frankly, it’s long past time for us to take our own health back from the medicine industry.

Amy, really good post. And some of the commenters had some good points, too. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the sweetner fads as well.

I have enjoyed reading this article and discussions, thank you for posting!
My husband and I had seen a report on coconut oil and how it’s actually beneficial with memory. I don’t recall the doctors name but she did the research and actually used it on her husband who was suffering from Alzheimer’s and the oil helped him. However, after seeing the label and the amount of saturated fat that was in it, my husband stopped using it. Now that I have read all of the discussion I understand it better and think I will be using it again. We don’t use a lot of oil, but as other have said, you do need oil from time to time, and coconut oil It seems to be one of the better alternatives along with olive oil. Thank you for the article, it along with the discussions brought up some great points!

Really? You think coconut oil is a processed food? I think this is not applicable to all kinds. I’ve been using this extra virgin coconut oil for 5 years or so and I can say that it is purely natural. It is a good type of moisturizer for my skin and hair so I still believe that not all types of coconut oil are processed.

Amy and Natelie, I find your article, well, half-baked at best. So you got people to stop buying coconut oil – perhaps you are being mis-led by the notion that food should be picked at by people and kids that think fat is simply bad – skinny is good. Do you think someone is being mis-led into thinking they can sit down to a coconut oil lunch. If this is the point of your article, then OK perhaps. But oil is always reduced / pressed from the seed, nut or plant and only the oil remains in creating such food-based items. How do you think butter compares to margarine? Both equally processed? Surely you know that sesame seeds are completely ingestible as seeds, AND the oil is very useful AS AN OIL as well, etc (and not only for internal use). Are we to expect a new series of articles on all the oils to point out the unscrupulous marketing scams going on out here? I hope the USDA is not your sole source of data in these articles. Do they even admit the existence of phyto-nutrients, co-enzymation or other bio-available nutrients in food sources, or is all that exists in the world of health either a vitamin or a mineral? Didn’t we used to count on the “Milk, Sugar or Beef Advisory Boards” for articles like this?

Thanks for the great research and write up! I hate to admit it but I am a victim of the effective Coconut Oil marketing campaign.

What scares me the most aside from the amount of processing, is the high number of calories found in coconut oil.

Which oil would you suggest a healthy eater switch to?

Thanks for the information!

I just wanted to thank you for sharing this, even knowing it might cause a ‘stir’. I appreciate all of the research you have done, it makes my job as the Mom/Chef a little easier as I can learn from you & others as I go. I love your recipes and I am working on getting my toddler to enjoy the food that are healthy. We have 2.5 year old and 1 year old and I want to get into good habits myself so I can help them learn as well. There is SO MUCH junk food out there that is so frequently offered it is hard to do, but I hope that overall we can adjust and stay healthy.

Our opinion is Canola and Olive are still the best options.. Because they are lower in saturated fat. I know not all saturated fat is created equal though, but less is better!! (in my opinion)

I want to thank you for sharing this article. After watching Forks over Knives, I have decided to tailor my daycare menu to focus on whole foods, natural, organic, etc. and it is amazing how my kids have reacted to the healthier menu! Replacing sugary cereals and instant oatmeal for rolled oats and fresh fruits was harder for me than it was for the children. Taking the time to choose wisely and read labels makes a huge difference. As far as the different oils, I think readers took your position that OILS ARE 100% FAT (which they are) and the minimal differences between them being over exaggerated through marketing efforts as you saying Coconut Oil is just as bad as any other oil (which I don’t believe was your intention). I think the goal here is to make everyone compare labels for themselves and decide what matters most. The only part of your article I am COMPLETELY opposed to was the line “To argue whether we should replace one processed oil with another doesn’t make sense to me”. The way oils are refined and their original sources play a major part depending on how often you cook with oil. I believe that olive oil is the best option for day to day but coconut oil does work better in certain recipes. Will I ever stop cooking with all oils period? Probably not in this lifetime, but I think that all of us can agree that oils in general should be used sparingly.Thanks Amy for sharing your thoughts and I like the fact that you inspired a great debate. For further reading, Walter C. Willett, M.D. wrote about this in the Harvard Health Letter and his point was that even with the lauric acid and the high-density lipoprotein (AKA “good cholesterol”), olive oil is still the better choice.

This was a very interesting article. Thank you for your nutrition info. I think sometimes people like to jump on new-food bandwagons and are personally offended when something untoward is said about them. Too bad. I have been curious about the so-called miraculous uses of coconut milk, and I welcome your new take on the subject, as well as oils in general.

I am also interested to know your opinion of the use of coconut milk. Is there nutritional value in its use? I use it in stir-fries and curries from time to time and would like to know what your opinion is.

I don’t know yet Wendy!! But, I do know it taste great, especially in stir-fry’s. We use it a lot, and I think it’s a great food storage item, because it’s shelf stable for so long. Also, per calorie, there is definitely more nutrients in the milk than in the oil 😉

Our opinion is Coconut Oil is the best and still the best options. We have been useing it for years now for more then just cooking and we feel wonderful!

Amy, You got it exactly right! Coconut oil (refined, unrefined, virgin, extra virgin, expeller cold pressed, etc. etc.) is nothing more than another well marketed processed food that has more to do with profits than nutrition. My taste buds love it, but that has little to do with any purported health benefits. Yeah I know about the unique metabolism of medium chain fatty acids, (blah, blah, blah). You have no reason to apologize for your initial post. Thanks,

You’re as pretty as this article was dumb. What oil isn’t refined? What oil has the nutritional profile you seem to think it should have? This is an OIL and not used as an entree.
Coconut oil is an excellent product with many uses. You’re criticism of it is entirely off base. Distilled water? Would you find fault with it for being ‘processed?’ You need to apply some intelligence to differentiate the various outcomes of ‘processing. It’s the outcome that is meaningful, not the fact of ‘processing.’

Thanx for the great post! I always like reading differing opinions…especially ones that seem to be rooted in good old fashioned reason. 😉 I can TOTALLY let myself be dragged along with food fads if Im not careful. sigh. I completely agree that coconut oil is not the miracle food that it is touted to be…is there really one single miracle cure-all food?? Love the “optimism” of people…myself included often. That being said, I do use coconut oil very occasionally in cooking because it works well at high heat as compared to some others and it depending on what I am cooking it enhances the flavor.
Also, I really appreciate the reminder about processed foods. Made me really think. Too often I really only think of pre-made boxed food as ‘processed’, although we do eat mainly whole foods. In the last few years I have also made an effort to cut out body products with lots of junk in them…so because of that I have used coconut oil. We use it because I LOVE the smell as compared to other oils. I like the taste of olive oil, but cant stand smelling it on me all day long. Also I have a one year old and it was Extremely helpful early on for the nipples, I also use it as lotion and diaper cream when needed. It works much better than anything else I have tried and in the end has been much more cost effective.
Thank you again for your post. It was well worded and thought provoking.

I use coconut oil for pretty much everything and have never felt better (except when I go off it for too long)… I know there are coconut oils that are processed too much, but the one we get is virgin, cold-pressed, etc. – were you only referring to the highly processed one? (I’m also of the opinion that saturated fats are essential for good health, hormonal, mental, physical, etc. !! )

Thank you for this post!! It’s really reassuring to hear someone else has at least considered the thought that maybe the coconut oil comes in a natural package for a reason! Thank you for thinking for yourself. I would have not thought much about it before, but my raw diet started slipping with too many processed fats and I became in an unhealthy state. After picking up a book on fiber, I realized I was putting too much of a burden on my liver by not giving my body the necessary fiber to push all the toxins out because the bile, as it is unable to be picked up and excreted, becomes thicker and thicker as our body recycles it and we can slowly become more and more toxic without much notice! Such a wake up call for me 🙂

Thank you for this post!! It’s really reassuring to hear someone else has at least considered the thought that maybe the coconut oil comes in a natural package for a reason! Thank you for thinking for yourself. I would have not thought much about it before, but my raw diet started slipping with too many processed fats and I became in an unhealthy state. After picking up a book on fiber, I realized I was putting t
oo much of a burden on my liver by not giving my body the necessary fiber to push all the toxins out because the bile, as it is unable to be picked up and excreted, becomes thicker and thicker as our body recycles it and we can slowly become more and more toxic without much notice! Such a wake up call for me 🙂

Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed surfing around your blog posts.
In any case I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

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The issue some may have with this piece is the lumping of coconut oil to processed foods.
Those two topics re not one in the same. Coconut oil has medicinal benefits due to its MCT factor (Medium Chain Triglycerides) that function in the body completely different than typical oils that have Long Chain. MCT has shown to be very beneficial for specific brain issues and does in fact break the blood/brain barrier to deliver positive benefits for those with Autism, Alzheimer’s and many other health issues. These benefits have nothing to do with processed foods and in fact, the MCT works in a positive way on the body independently from glucose levels. So some of the push back to this article may actually be more about the processed foods/Coconut oil comparison. At any rate, good dialogue is always a healthy thing! 😉

Whilst I appreciate your article, I don’t agree with you at all. I’ve used coconut oil all my life, as a matter fact every part of the coconut. I actually use it quite regularly in my cooking. My family has been using it for as long as I can remember. My mom swear by it so did my grandmother as well as my entire family. I’ve never used anything else on my son’s skin and he even consume it as well. I’m sure there are more dangerous things out there than coconut oil.
Research on coconut oil is young and I’m sure in the future much more benefits will be discovered.
The flesh of the coconut has its place and so does the oil. To be honest I don’t think it’s fair to compare them as they are parts that make a whole. I’ll continue using coconut, as for the fad I think people should do their own research after all it concerns their health.

Thank you, Amy. I am as devoted to whole unprocessed foods too and teach parents around the world how to nurture children’s health and development with real whole foods.

I must say, however, that cooking and baking is much more processing than cold extraction of oil from the coconut. Also, coconut oil has lauric acid which is not on your list.

To eat unprocessed, one would have to stick to raw food (I do, including meat and eggs.) But I appreciate your thoughts as people do forget that coconut oil doesn’t grow on trees, only coconuts do.

Thank you so much for this post! My 17 month old is tube fed because he was born with a hole in his diaphram (CDH) and we’re taking him off of the pure formula diet he’s had almost his whole life. I’m looking for a healthy oil to add to his feed, mainly to boost calories (to be honest) as he is underweight. This helped me rule out coconut oil as an option for that! Any suggestions of a good oil that is liquid as it must go through his gtube?

Hi Jennifer! I’m glad you found our article useful, and thanks for sharing your story. Your son’s situation is unique and you should definitely bring these questions to his doctor or dietitian so they can help you find the best blend of ingredients for him. Wishing for a smooth transition off formula for him!

I love how this article is written. No judgement, no condemnation just pure information. As a reader I get to decide how to apply this to my life. Thank you!