Is Coconut Oil Bad?
Maybe you’ve noticed, or maybe you haven’t, but the American Heart Association (AHA) just released a statement on coconut oil that just has to be addressed. While the statement was made about saturated fats and cholesterol in the diet, a huge focus on the internet right now is coconut oil and whether or not it is healthy. There are claims being made that coconut oil is contributing to cardiovascular disease and that instead we should opt for so called “heart healthy vegetable oils.” So, is coconut oil bad or are we being misled?
With the rapid rise in the popularity of coconut oil as a healthy fat in recent years, the AHA stance on the matter can be downright confusing. While it can be disconcerting to hear such a stance from an apparently authoritative and reliable source, this is where living in the era of information really empowers the consumer!
Brief History Of The AHA
The American Heart Association was founded in the 1920’s by cardiologists. The mission of the AHA was to drive research and public health policy in a way that would reduce heart disease and stroke. I think everyone would agree that this is a great mission that our heart-diseased society needs now more than ever.
The problem with the setup of the AHA, however, is that it relies on corporate sponsorship to remain funded. Current sponsors of the AHA include Subway and Cheerios as well as pharmaceutical company Bayer (who is now teamed with biotech giant, Monsanto).
The problem with this is that the ultimate goal of these huge corporations is their bottom line. If the AHA conducts research that exposes negative aspects of these company’s products, they can swiftly cut funding and make the AHA obsolete.
With this is mind, the average consumer should already have a healthy skepticism about the claims made by the AHA.
The AHA’s Dietary Recommendations
The AHA has a history of dietary recommendations that, based on current research, are downright questionable. For example, the AHA recommends replacing saturated fats (coconut oil/butter) with omega-6 fats like vegetable oils and margarine. Omega-6 fats consumed in abundance have been repeatedly shown to contribute to chronic inflammation, which is one of the real causes of heart disease (I’ll touch on this again later).
The AHA’s recommendation to avoid saturated fats is based primarily on research done in the 1960’s that has been largely disproven since. In order to draw the conclusion that saturated fats and cholesterol were leading to heart disease, the AHA had to essentially ignore the vast majority of research since then that has shown just the opposite.
As you can see here, in the past 5 years alone there has been a mix of meta-analyses and literature reviews all showing no causal link between CVD and saturated fats or cholesterol.
Other Faulty Dietary Recommendations By The AHA:
- The high consumption of processed carbohydrates like cereals (Contributing to blood sugar imbalance, inflammation, obesity, and ironically, increased risk of heart disease)
- The reduced intake of dietary sodium (This study shows that following the AHA sodium intake guidelines actually increases your risk of suffering a fatal heart event)
- The consumption of foods with the AHA Heart Healthy Check Mark (Which includes Subway Sandwiches and Cheerios, of course)
Nutrition Research Is Tough
It can be hard to draw solid conclusions from nutrition research for one key reason, a heavy reliance on epidemiological evidence. What this means is that instead of controlling for specific factors in a lab, much of our nutrition research is simply based upon surveys and questionnaires sent out to the public. Here’s what’s wrong with that.
Not only is there no way to verify the accuracy of an individual’s answers, but the data extracted only allows for correlation. What this means is that among the massive pool of data, the only thing we can do is look at the relationship between trends.
A classic example of this shortcoming is the correlation between ice cream sales and violent crimes. As you can see on the graph below the correlation between ice cream sales and violent crimes is very high. Does that mean that ice cream causes violence?
The more accurate conclusion may be that during the summer months when the temperature is elevated (and ice cream sales are coincidentally higher) violent behavior is more prevalent. Coincidentally, research has also shown that hotter temperatures consistently correlate with an increase in violent crimes.
This is the type of critical analysis that must go on when looking at our nutrition data. The deeper factors involving blood sugar, inflammation, and differentiating types of cholesterol all need to be further evaluated (1).
Current Data On Coconut Oil
Despite the AHA’s recommendation to ditch your coconut oil, current research just doesn’t agree.
Not only have recent reviews highlighted the CVD prevention benefits of coconut oil, but have even shown positive effects for those who already have CVD (2, 3). Specifically, coconut oil supplementation improved lipid profiles while promoting sustainable decreases in bodyweight and waist circumference (which are both risk factors for CVD).
Additionally, in a controlled mouse model, it has been shown that the replacement of coconut oil with soybean oil (an apparently healthier alternative according to the AHA) had overall negative effects on metabolic health. The mice fed higher amounts of soybean oil and less coconut oil experienced higher rates of obesity, diabetes, inflammation, mitochondrial dysfunction, and cancer (4).
Misleading Conclusions On LDL
Most people know LDL as the bad cholesterol while HDL is the good cholesterol. This is somewhat true but there is more to the story. There are actually two primary types of LDL, high density and low density. What we know now is that low-density LDL cholesterol is not harmful while high-density LDL may contribute to CVD, depending on HDL levels and other factors.
Many of the AHA’s dietary fat recommendations revolve around the fact that saturated fat raises LDL. What continues to go unaddressed is that they are blanketing all LDL as bad. Saturated fat does increase LDL, but only the good, large particle size that is associated with a lower risk of heart disease (5). Additionally, saturated fats increase HDL, which is also a negative risk factor for CVD.
These are picturesque changes you are looking for to decrease your risk of CVD!
The Overlooked CVD Risk-Factor: Inflammation
Past research focused on weak epidemiological evidence to determine the link between saturated fats, cholesterol, and CVD. Newer research shows that one of the primary contributing factors for obesity, atherosclerosis, and CVD-related conditions is actually chronic inflammation.
One reason for this is the presence of oxidative stress, which is a primary contributor to inflammation. Oxidative stress damages the lining of arterial walls while oxidizing cholesterol, changing its structure and promoting atherosclerosis.
Coincidentally, the high consumption of omega-6 polyunsaturated fats and refined carbohydrates contributes to this type of inflammation. These things also cause a decrease in both HDL and large LDL particles and an increase in the small, dense LDL particles that are associated with higher risk of heart disease (5).
By replacing omega-6 fats and sugars with healthy saturated fats like coconut oil, this inflammatory response diminishes greatly (6). Not only does controlled research show no link between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease, but there are several example populations that thrive on diets rich in these components.
How Inflammation Can Contribute To CVD
Cholesterol has been deemed dangerous for a long time. Originally this made sense because arterial plaques are primarily made up of cholesterol. But modern research has uncovered inflammation as a deeper underlying cause.
As I briefly mentioned already, inflammation and oxidative stress can damage the internal lining of the arteries. As a protective mechanism, the body sends cholesterol to bandage the area. So, cholesterol is not inherently bad, but can become harmful in the presence of chronic inflammation.
Our bodies actually heavily rely on saturated fats and cholesterol for the proper production of hormones, brain tissue, and nervous system health. By replacing healthy saturated fats with processed, genetically modified vegetable oils you may be doing yourself a disservice in many ways.
A 2017 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that carbohydrate and polyunsaturated fat (such as in vegetable oils) intake was more closely associated with coronary heart disease than was saturated fat intake (7).
Based on what the current data shows, I will continue to recommend consuming coconut oil (organic, virgin or extra virgin) and healthy saturated fats from butter and animal products (pasture-raised and grass-fed).
Additionally, for protection against heart disease, we need to address the real underlying issues. By controlling inflammation, balancing blood sugar, reducing bodyweight, and balancing hormones, you drastically cut your risk of CVD.
For my general dietary recommendations, check out my guidelines for a healing diet.