After an extensive review, the American Heart Association have given coconut oil the thumbs down.
What does this mean for you and why has coconut oil been black listed after it’s honey moon run of being the new super oil?
After a dietician told a client last year that coconut oil was evil and to avoid it, I thought either their registration ticket needed revoking or I had missed some vital piece of information on coconut oil.
I was pretty shocked to be honest, as I have read a lot about coconut oil and it’s seeming magic health benefits from being anti-microbial and helping with irritable bowel syndrome, to fighting cancers including breast cancer.
Turns out that it might be all that but not great with cholesterol and cardiovascular disease.
I want to dismantle the review paper used by the American Heart Association published in Circulation last year, as the reason why coconut oil is disparaged in heart disease. I want to point out the key points, the areas of grey and what I have finally laid to rest upon!
Is coconut good for you?
I want to show you that while coconut oil is high in saturated fats, this implied BAD affect is offset by it’s mono and polyunsaturated oil component. And why cholesterol is only part of the story when it comes to heart disease!
Recently the American Heart Foundation published this post which bring the use of coconut oil and heart disease into better balance.
Coconut Oil is classified as a Saturated Fat
Despite having mono and poly unsaturated fats in it, coconut oil is approximately 60-80% saturated fat.
Being a saturated fat goes against coconut oil when it comes to heart disease.
The other fats in coconut oil: mono and poly unsaturated fats are excellent for skin, brain, bone, gut health and have also been shown to have anti-cancer benefits. Hence the confusion around coconut oil.
Further more, extensive research into cardiovascular death rates (the leading cause of death globally, ref 1) has shown that replacing saturated fats (eg lard, butter, animal fat trimmings, sausages, palm oil) with mono and polyunsaturated fats, leads to decrease in heart disease and deaths from CVD (ref 1).THERE IS NO EVIDENCE to directly attribute the saturated fats in coconut as being harmful for cardio vascular health, nor increasing deaths due to CVD .
The studies have been with other saturated fats. If you find a research paper showing that coconut specifically is harmful for cholesterol please post in the comments. I have spent hours gathering this research. xox
The review in Circulation, also showed that replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates DID NOT lead to improved cardiovascular health outcomes. So ” low fat” options, such as biscuits, milk etc where low fat is made out to be healthy, with sugars being used as the substitute, don’t cut the mustard either! (ref 1).
More on the coconut
Coconut oil is sourced from the fruit of a coconut tree. Grown in abundance throughout Asia and the South Pacific, it has been a food staple of these nations for years.
Coconut is high in fats, turns out a mixture of fats, and can constitutes up to 50% of overall calories for indigenous diets in these regions.
People in these regions when eating an indigenous diet have lived healthy lives. It is with the introduction of the American Standard Diet (a diet high in animal fats, refined sugars, nutrient weak foods) that heart disease has come to the regions.
The “super food” qualities that coconut has is really a modern day interpretation of it’s anecdotal benefits in certain health conditions, and it’s use by locals on skin issues, for gut complaints etc. But research is proving this to be true as well.
Coconut oil does have wonderful health benefits, but caution with high cholesterol.
Coconut oil is squashed out of the flesh of a coconut.
The juice of the coconut has been used in medicine mid last century as a blood volume expander, so it’s no wonder that it is a favourable fruit to consider for other things.
As Western research continues to look for patentable chemicals in foods that can be turned into pharmaceuticals, coconut has had its share of lime light under the microscope. It is here, that the evidence is not clear and has been confusing people.
I am hoping to clear up the confusion around whether coconut oil is good for you.
Here is the critical piece of information….how fats are classified and why there is confusion around coconut.
Fats and heart disease
Coconut oil contains many types of fatty acids. Fatty acids are the different types of fats with there being a total of 23 different strands.
Some of the fatty acid chains in coconut are beneficial, and others have been shown to increase bad cholesterol and total cholesterol. HOWEVER! One large study showed it also increased the good cholesterol and decreased Apo A and other nasty markers associated with heart disease. I will discuss the implications of this soon.
This blog post is a great read and highlights what the composition of coconut oil is and why it is quite unique. Having three different types of fat groups (saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats) makes coconut oil in a league of it’s own.
It is the properties of some of these fats that have muddied the water, however I am yet to find a study that would categorically make me say coconut oil is bad for you… just yet. Read on.
The unique blend of fatty acids in coconut oil see it mainly categorized as a saturated fat.
With 48% of coconut oil being lauric acid, a saturated fat, it overall gets labelled as a saturated fat.
Without going into too much biochemistry, saturated fats have double bonds on their chains which makes them harder to break down. They are typically found in animal fats (eg: bacon rind) but also in palm oil and coconut oil. Saturated fats go solid at room temperature.
I know some of you, who like me, live in a warm climate, are used to seeing coconut as an oil, not a solid, but generally it is a solid.
Its the saturated acid component that gives coconut oil a bad rap as an oil and food.
I want to discuss that more now, and later in the blog, I will explain why coconut oil can also be good for you.
Cholesterol, Coconut Oil & Heart Disease
Having been trained in coronary care and falling in love with hearts, I can tell you A LOT about cholesterol. That coupled with seven of my nine years in pharmaceuticals, selling cholesterol lowering agents and other cardiovascular disease medications means I have seen the multifaceted debate surrounding cholesterol.
None of my advice here is individual, just general in nature, so as always, consult your overseeing practitioner and naturopath. If you don’t have one, get one 🙂 x
I would love to write an entire blog on cholesterol and heart disease. If you have 3 minutes spare, this is a youtube clip I recorded years ago in Monte Carlo about cholesterol and stress.
There are several types of cholesterol, which is also a fat. Cholesterol is used by the body in making cell walls, hormones and the covering of the brain. Cholesterol in itself is not bad. It is essential for health and living! When people refer to “bad cholesterol” it is really only one type of cholesterol that is “bad”; low density lipoprotein or LDL.
Trigylerides are a type of fat and elevated levels can indicate a fatty liver (often induced by high sugar and high corn syrup diets) but it is converted to LDL which is ultimately the problem.
LDL is considered bad as it is a heavy, dense molecule (more fat than protein) and in an effort to protect the body (especially the narrow coronary arteries) the body will drag LDL out of the blood stream and store it in the muscle layer around the arteries. This lessens the circulating fat and is a natural process.
This natural process can become an issue when the lumen of the artery (size) starts to reduce. Understand that first the coronary artery will widen and expand, and only in extended periods of high cholesterol will it start to reduce the size of the artery and impede flow. This is called atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis also includes white blood cells conglomerating trying to shield the LDL in the artery wall (now called a plaque) which eventually ends up becoming stiff and hard. (You may have heard of hardening of the arteries)?
When the arteries become stiff and hard, they lose flexibility. This means when the pressure builds up inside the artery (such as high blood pressure, after smoking, stress) it can’t expand. This puts a lot of pressure on the walls of the artery which can make them tear!
When the plaque wall tears and is exposed to the circulating blood, platelet blood cells conglomerate around it and make a clot! It is when this clot migrates to other areas of the heart or brain arteries that you will suffer either a heart attack or stroke.
The plaque (I have seen many with open heart surgery etc) is like the smelly goo you find down your drain pipes. It is sticky, stinks and reaps of foul play. Even though the body does it to protect you.
Fatty streaks ( the start of a plaque) have been found in the cadivas of young men so it is not necessarily an older person’s disease.
Interestingly people don’t die from high cholesterol. They have heart attacks, or strokes (same disease, but different locations) which usually rise from a torn plaque.
Plaques tear when there is high pressure zipping through the artery (ie high blood pressure) or in the presence of an infection (eg chlamydia).
The rap on cholesterol
While having high LDL and high TC are not a sentence for death they indicate your body isn’t processing fats well, or you are eating TOO MANY saturated fats or sugars. The other factors matter equally as much as high LDL and high TC EG: stress, high blood pressure, infection (especially from teeth), high corn syrup diet, high salt and more.
It is this slightly mis-interpreted slant on heart disease which has lead to “health professionals ” being confused by the highly successful Mediterranean diet. How can people have cream, wine and still have the best health parameters in heart disease. More on this in my blog on diets and the Mediterranean.
A person’s total cholesterol is a formula to work out the sum of their LDL, HDL and triglycerides.
Coconut oil has been associated with raising LDL and total cholesterol.
High density lipoprotein (HDL) is considered the “good cholesterol” and guess what? Coconut raises HDL! The good cholesterol.
Coconut raises HDL!
This pivotal study of 116 people reported the most useful data I have read on coconut oil and heart disease.
The findings: coconut oil increases HDL – the protective cholesterol.
Now I am not saying the American Heart Foundation is wrong but I do think without going to much into it, that pharmaceutical companies play a big role. Not because I am a conspiracy theorist, but because I worked in the industry for nine years.
The emphasis on lowering someone’s LDL and TC is quite out of proportion to the accurate diet advice being given.
The most popular of these drug groups being HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors or statins which focus on blocking the liver’s capacity to make LDL. Hence lowering TC which has been shown to decrease arthrosclerosis and heart disease. But does that mean coconut oil is bad?
I don’t believe so.
Many people who have died from heart attacks haven’t had elevated LDL or TC. It is just a risk factor.
The Good Oils in Coconut Oil
Remember I was saying their are more fats than just lauric acid (saturated fat) in coconut oil which makes it unique?
Where here is the significance.
Coconut oil has quite a few oils. Some saturated (lauric acid), some polyunsaturated (linoleic acid) and monounsaturated (oleic acid).
Linoleic acid (although <2% of coconut oil) is considered an essential fatty acid. It plays a role in inflammation, brain, skin and bone health. You need to consume essential fatty acids (linoleic and alpha linolenic ) which are found in healthy nuts, seeds, olive oil, deep sea fish and plant oils, as they are essential for good health. Your body can not make these fatty acids from other fats! Coconut oil gets a ring in here as a healthy option.
Oleic Acid constitutes approximately 6% of coconut oil. Oleic Acid is found in high amounts in olive oil and has been put forward as the reason why the Mediterranean diet is so wonderful, and plays a role in heart disease prevention and breast cancer reduction!
I believe given the extensive review of current research and studies, my coronary care back ground and nutritional understanding that the review paper published in Circulation has bundled coconut oil unfairly with other saturated fats.
I do not recommend increasing all saturated fats in existing heart disease instead replacing them with poly and mono unsaturated fats. However I do think coconut is the exception to the rule, and moderate consumption of it in heart disease has not been researched extensively enough. The current studies look favourably on it in cardiovascular disease as it increases HDL, the protective cholesterol.
Does this mean you should have buckets of it? NO!
Keep it to two Table spoons 2TBS a day max. This would include raw cheesecakes, coconut oil used as a main ingredient. It would exclude body products, pulling and using it for cooking (ie; frying other foods in).
If you have known heart disease limit coconut oil consumption to 1 teaspoon a day max!
I haven’t touched on it here but I innately feel that genetically we should be consuming the oil most suited to our DNA. Therefore people of Asian and Pacific Island decent may have a different (positive) response to coconut oil. While those from Mediterranean decent probably thrive with mediterranean oils.
I believe a diet high in colourful vegetables, eaten in a relaxed environment. Organic where possible. Moderate consumption of wine, daily vitamin D and exercise are corner stones of good health and keeping cardiovascular disease at bay.
So in summary:
Coconut oil is unique
It contains a mixture of saturated, poly and mono-unsaturated fats
Due to Lauric acid being 50% of the oil, it is classified as a saturated fat
It is because of this classification I believe it got lumped with all the research into heart disease and other saturated fats
Research directly looking at coconut and heart disease actually showed a positive benefit in raising HDL, lowering Apo A and others
Heart disease and CVD are complicated diseases and involve a lot more facets than just cholesterol.
Limiting coconut oil to 2 Tbs a day for non cardiac risk persons makes sense
Limiting coconut oil to 1 tsp or nil for high risk cardiac persons makes sense
Cooking with coconut oil is fine. It plays a role as a starch blocker
Using coconut oil in your hair, on your body is also fine as it is the serum (blood levels ) or saturated fats that is the problem, not topical application.
Stress less, love more and play!
I would love you to add your comments below, and share if you know someone who is confused about coconut oil. THANK-YOU!
It is a confusing area but I hope I have shed light on it for you.
- The review paper by the American Heart Association is here.
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