A recent article in USA Today on coconut oil has created a flurry of concern when it comes to what to eat. A supposedly new report from the American Heart Association (AHA) shows that coconut oil isn’t good for you, was never good for you, and you should stop eating it immediately. This has gotten picked up by several different media sources (because they love soundbytes — little news headlines that generate interest but don’t provide in depth information). The AHA recommendation states, “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”
Given the increased number of people who are consuming coconut oil this has caused a lot of confusion. It also generated a lot of people reaching out to me wanting to know what to do. I spent a lot of time during the first two days after this article came out answering emails and responding to social media posts. Here is my rebuttal of the article(s). Let’s start with the short answer: Coconut oil is healthy for you, I will continue to eat it, and I continue to suggest it as a healthy fat. Now, as they say, for the rest of the story.
I find it somewhat odd that this “news” comes out in the same timeframe as another article reporting on an advisory from the American Heart Association, Why you should switch from butter to margarine: Simple change could be as good as statins for your heart. Margarine is a trans-fat, it’s hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated to make it solid at room temperature. Trans-fats are harmful for cardiovascular health and were removed from the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe list back in 2013. With regard to consumption of trans-fats the AHA clearly states, “The American Heart Association recommends cutting back on foods containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oils to reduce trans fat in your diet.” So I find it very curious that they appear to be once again encouraging margarine consumption while dissing a source of healthy fat.
What is coconut oil?
Before we pick apart the headlines let’s start by identifying what coconut oil is. It’s made from the white, fleshy part of the coconut, sometimes referred to as the meat. The best quality is made from fresh coconut (as opposed to dried) which is expeller pressed. Cold pressed (instead of heat pressed) is even better because it retains more of the nutrients. Coconut oil contains caprylic acid, capric acid, and lauric acid. These medium chain fatty acids provide a number of benefits including:
- antibiotic, antimicrobial and antifungal
- highly effective against candida
- highly digestible and supportive for ulcers and ulcerative colitis
- not easily stored as fat
- supportive for brain health
- beneficial for skin issues such as dandruff, dermatitis, eczema, and psoriasis (taken internally and externally)
- prevents bone loss
- helpful for weight loss
- beneficial for cardiovascular health
Due to it’s saturated nature, coconut oil changes from liquid to solid depending on ambient temperature. There is a form of coconut oil on the market referred to as MCT, short for Medium Chain Triglycerides, which is liquid all the time. This does not have the same profile as ‘regular’ coconut oil. MCT oil is more concentrated and has different proportions for the different medium chain fatty acids.
Here’s why these scare-tactic articles about coconut oil fall short for me. They are not based on new studies. In fact all the new data coming out shows the health benefits of coconut oil. If you read the recent negative articles carefully you can see that the advisory they quote is based on a review of previous data. They’ve decided, however, to rename it and call it an American Heart Association Presidential Advisory. It doesn’t matter what they call it, it’s still not new information. Not only is this old information, it’s information that has been debunked. Here’s the cliff notes version of what you need to know:
- Saturated fat – Dr. Ancel Keys is the man at the center of the whole heart disease/saturated fat issue. He essentially cherry picked the data to fit his theory that consumption of saturated fats increased cardiovascular disease. (In case you didn’t know, cherry picking your data is a bad thing for a researcher.) However his legacy lives on with scary articles about how bad saturated fat is for us. This continues despite newer studies showing that saturated fat is not as harmful as we have been led to believe.
- Hydrogenation – Many of the studies that were done examining the effect of saturated fats on cholesterol levels used hydrogenated coconut oil. That is, they added hydrogen to make it always solid, in effect turning coconut oil into a trans-fat. The cold-pressed, extra virgin, organic coconut oil that you should be buying and consuming has no trans-fats. These studies do not apply and yet they are repeatedly trotted out and cited as a reason to avoid consuming coconut oil
- Cholesterol – The articles claim that coconut oil increases cholesterol, especially LDL. However we can’t focus just on one factor, LDL, as a risk for cardiovascular disease. In fact studies have found cholesterol ratios and HDL levels improved by consuming coconut oil. What’s more important is the size of your lipoprotein particles. Lots of small dense particles are more harmful than a number of fewer, larger particles. To get to the true value of heart health you need to look deeper than just LDL. You need to consider the ratio of HDL to LDL, your triglycerides, and your LPP (lipoprotein particle) values.
- Inflammatory – Coconut oil is not an inflammatory food. In fact it has been found to be the opposite. While some saturated fats are inflammatory, coconut oil does not fall into this category. Side note: According to the National Cancer Institute the largest source of saturated fat in the American diet is cheese and pizza.
- Fats – Fats are healthy, and a wonderful source of energy. That’s so important I’m going to say it again. Fats are healthy! We need fat. Your brain is made up of 70% fat, your vital organs are surrounded by a protective layer of fat, your hormones are made from fat, and without fat you cannot absorb and utilize the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. It’s also important to note that fat slows down how fast your body breaks down and absorbs sugar.
- Heart disease – Low fat was NEVER the answer to heart disease. In fact we now know that the opposite is true. The more we shifted to low fat the more heart disease increased. Leading to more people on statin drugs with diabetes and obesity. Replacing fat with chemicals and carbohydrates is exactly the wrong answer to being healthy. And the available studies continue to support this fact.
Yes you can
Continue to eat coconut oil as part of a healthy diet. Choose cold-pressed, expeller-pressed, organic, extra virgin for optimal benefit. Coconut oil can be used for cooking or baking, it’s great in smoothies (melt it first for proper blending), and it gives a wonderful boost when you add a little to a cup of tea or coffee.
Remember that eating well to be well includes a balanced, varied, whole food/real food nutritional plan. General guidelines suggest that 30% of your daily diet should come from healthy fats. These include avocados, butter and ghee, coconut oil, olive oil, and nuts and seeds (preferably raw and soaked).
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