On June 15, 2017 the American Heart Association released an advisory on saturated fat. This advisory included several studies on heart health including a small section stating that coconut oil may not be as healthy as many previously thought. This is because coconut oil is a saturated fat (found in meat, milk, cheese, butter, and some tropical oils) and these tend to increase LDL cholesterol which is a major risk factor for heart disease.
Why is this important?
- Heart disease has been the top cause of death in the United States for over 80 years.
- Over 17 million people die ever year from heart disease
- Heart disease kills 400,000 Americas every single year
To put some of these numbers into perspective, the amount of people who die every year from heart disease is the equivalent to four jumbo jets crashing every single hour of every single day, every single year. Heart disease also kills more Americans annually than all of our past wars combined. In addition, heart disease costs the US nearly 1 billion in medical costs every single day! The saddest part is, heart disease is largely preventable through healthy lifestyle. That is a lot of life lost due to a mostly preventable condition.
So, when research shows that something significantly decreases risk of heart disease, it is a big deal and should be shared with the general public. This advisory was published to do exactly that – to demonstrate, once again, that saturated fat still increases risk for cardiovascular disease and that saturated plant fats like coconut oil should be considered as such.
No surprisingly, many public figures in the food, health and fitness world were upset about this and understandably so! It’s unsettling when a staple food in your diet comes under scrutiny – especially when it’s been something you recommend to hundreds of thousands of people who look to you for wellness advice. At the same point, I am sad to see bloggers with large, loyal followings blowing off the article without even reading it simply because it’s not congruent with what they currently believe. As a role model and health advocate (regardless of your own food philosophy) I feel there is an obligation to address topics like this. You may not agree, but outright saying to your following that a large study like this one is BS without reviewing it, is in my opinion, negligent and irresponsible.
Coconut oil does have some very unique properties that differ from saturated animal fat. For example, coconut oil is an antibacterial, anti-fungal and it doesn’t cause the same spike in inflammation after consumption that saturated animal fats do. It also contains an interesting structure of medium chain triglycerides (MCT). However, in regards to heart health and cholesterol, it’s impact is about as similar as butter.
I strongly encourage YOU to read the advisory to develop your own personal opinions around saturated fat, but here are the important take aways I personally feel should be highlighted from the advisory:
- First and foremost, this really isn’t news. Limiting saturated fat for better health (particularly heart health) has been recommended for years.
- Vegetable oils, particularly polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), instead of saturated fat may reduce your risk of heart disease by 30%.
- Avoiding saturated fat but eating large amounts of refined carbohydrates and sugar in its place does not provide much protection from heart disease either.
- Limiting saturated fat and consuming unprocessed and unrefined carbohydrates (fruits, veggies, whole grains etc.) may provide the even greater protection from heart disease – however this was not greatly explored or mentioned in this advisory.
- This advisory was not targeting coconut oil, nor was the AHA. If you read the advisory you will see it’s a compilation of many studies on saturated fat with a small section on coconut oil. The media was responsible for the triggering headlines and putting the focus of the advisory on coconut oil.
I’m one of the first people who will tell you I don’t support much of what health industries put out there. However much of the research these organizations have (as long as it is not sponsored by a large industry or corporation) is often relevant and sound – it’s just how the conclusions are twisted it to make it “palatable” to the public.
In my opinion, the media had a field day with this advisory because coconut oil is very trendy. If the headlines simply read, “AHA reports that Saturated Fats still increases risk for heart disease” no one would have blinked. I feel it’s a bit unfortunate that coconut oil took such a hit here instead of the the saturated animal fats which come with a ton of extra ‘baggage’ and other negative health consequences. Either way the media managed to once again, cause even more confusion and doubt for consumers.
So, what do I think?
Oil in general is incredibly calorically dense while being relatively nutrient dilute meaning it offers the body little nutrition for the high calorie content. It technically is not a whole food as it has been processed into a new state (i.e. an olive is a whole food that is then changed into a new product, olive oil, through processing). My personal philosophy – eat mostly whole plant foods, cook with herbs and spices, use oils mindfully and perhaps coconut oil sparingly.
I think people are always looking for quick fixes and miracles foods. While there are some foods in particular that are outstanding in terms of nutrient density, fiber and antioxidant content etc., no single food will give you great health.
I do really love coconut oil and use it almost daily (very liberally) on body, in hair, for make up removal and oil pulling. I do cook with coconut oil sometimes too!
Again, what I really encourage, is for you to read the advisory and do some research so you can develop your own opinion on coconut oil that you feel empowered in.