Theres been a lot of bad press in the media lately about the potential harmfull effects of coconut oil consumption. This has come off the back of the American Heart Association’s new presidential advisory called “Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association.” This is not centrally about coconut oil. It just has one section on coconut oil that makes up a very small portion of the paper, in which, yes, they say coconut oil is just like other saturated fats. It’s going to raise your cholesterol levels, and it’s going to contribute to heart disease. They then go on to report that “A recent survey reported that 72% of the American public rated coconut oil as a ‘healthy food’ compared with 37% of nutritionists. This disconnect between lay and expert opinion can be attributed to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press.”
We know from the research that saturated fat can in fact raise your cholesterol. However, it raises it in a good way. Evidence has shown if your LDL cholesterol contains a lot of small, dense particles and you also have high triglycerides, then you're setting the stage for heart disease. Those small, dense particles come from a diet that's high in carbs and low in fat. Reduce your carbohydrate consumption and increase the good quality fats, your cholesterol particle ratio of bad to good will almost certainly improve.
However, if your LDL cholesterol is mostly made up of large, fluffy particles and your triglycerides are low, your risk of heart disease is much lower. What makes the difference between dangerous small, dense LDL particles and safer LDL isn't the amount of saturated fat you eat. In fact, study after study shows that your fat and cholesterol intake have almost no impact on your blood cholesterol. It's the amount of sugar. The AHA estimates that the average person eats 20 teaspoons of sugar a day. Sugar raises your LDL cholesterol, lowers your HDL cholesterol, and increases your triglycerides. It has been shown to increase insulin resistance and trigger inflammation. In fact, an important study in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014 proved conclusively that high sugar consumption is closely linked to death from heart disease—and that link is far closer than it is for cholesterol, smoking, hypertension, or any other risk factors. That is the statistic– about the dangers to your heart and your health–is where the real headline scare should be.
There's no need to avoid saturated fat as long as it comes from a healthy, plant-based source. Coconut oil is definitely preferable to cheap, highly processed vegetable oils that have had their nutrients stripped away. Coconut oil has other health benefits as well. The main fatty acid in coconut oil is lauric acid, which has well-known antibiotic, anti-microbial, and anti-viral benefits.
Coconut oil also helps stabilize blood sugar and helps soothe digestive upsets. Eating a lot of coconut oil does, indeed, raise your cholesterol levels–in a positive way by raising HDL (the good cholesterol), lowering triglycerides, and lowering the amount of small LDL particles.
Furthermore, check out these papers taken from Melanesian Islands where the natives consumed significantly greater amounts of saturated fat in the form of coconut oil and have a complete absence of stroke and ischaemic heart disease.
J Intern Med. 1993 Mar;233(3):269-75.
Apparent absence of stroke and ischaemic heart disease in a traditional Melanesian island: a clinical study in Kitava.
Lindeberg S1, Lundh B.
Am J Clin Nutr. 1981 Aug;34(8):1552-61.
Cholesterol, coconuts, and diet on Polynesian atolls: a natural experiment: the Pukapuka and Tokelau island studies.
Prior IA, Davidson F, Salmond CE, Czochanska Z.
So go ahead, eat coconut oil!
With thanks to:
The University of Functional Medicine
Chris Masterjohn (chrismasterjohnphd.com)