The holistic health world was in a uproar recently when headlines surfaced that coconut oil isn’t healthy and never has been. The American Heart Association (AHA) claims that 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 (source: Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory).
Here we go again. Eggs are bad. Red meat causes cancer. Fat causes heart disease. It’s so hard to understand what to believe.
The fact that coconut oil increases cholesterol and is high in saturated fat isn’t new news! We know! That doesn’t mean it’s a bad thing. Lower cholesterol levels aren’t necessarily better. This is why I want you to look beyond the headlines and do your own research. Don’t take every health recommendation at face value. Understand how to approach health and scientific studies with a critical eye (who’s funding it? What is their incentive?), and realize that you can’t always trust what you read about nutrition studies.
Also: have we seen a reduction in heart disease and metabolic syndrome with the AHA’s recommendations? Heart disease is and has been the leading cause of death for the past 15+ years.
So why would the AHA release these recommendations? This article does an excellent job of explaining why government organizations don’t have your best interest at “heart.” It’s about the money. Keep in mind that the AHA relies on corporate sponsorship for funding. Some of the AHA’s current sponsors include Subway, Cheerios, and Bayer (pharmaceutical company), and conducting research exposing any negatives about these corporations or their products/ingredients would cut funding. Do you think, then, that the AHA’s recommendations are unbiased?
Is Coconut Oil Unhealthy?
First off, there is no new data. The AHA just reviewed existing data and released this news along with their age-old stance that fat will kill you. Blech.
Secondly, no one is denying that coconut oil is a rich source of saturated fat and that it does raise cholesterol levels, but so what? You automatically assume this will raise your heart disease risk, right? Wait. Cholesterol isn’t a bad thing. Your body uses cholesterol to make hormones (like your sex hormones), and it’s needed for repair. Further, coconut oil raises cardio-protective HDL levels (source), but the most important takeaway here is we know that neither saturated fat nor cholesterol causes heart disease (source and study). This is source of the confusion: we’re trying to find a food or group of foods to demonize as the main causes of disease, but we’re failing to look at the overall picture. For optimal health, we need to look at overall diet and lifestyle, not just an isolated food.
Lower cholesterol levels do not correlate with lower CVD risk. We have countless studies that prove this: the Minnesota Coronary experiment, the data that altering cholesterol doesn’t translate into fewer heart attacks, and that statins (which forceably lower cholesterol) don’t actually work to prevent heart disease.
Studies have found no correlation between saturated fat intake and CVD risk. We’ve known this for years.
What’s the real culprit behind heart disease? Inflammation. What causes inflammation? Sugar, processed foods, conventionally raised (non organic) meat, dairy, refined carbs (think white flour, pasta, bread), stress, overuse of alcohol, drugs (both OTC and prescription), lack of sleep, pollution, being sedentary.
When it comes to cholesterol, it is true that higher LDL levels correlate with inflammation that causes heart disease. But it goes far deeper than “elevated LDL causes heart disease.” We need a complete lipid analysis to look at LDL particle size to determine our inflammation risk. High saturated fat consumption in a diet that is otherwise void of adequate fiber and leafy greens, and too high in sugar and refined carbohydrates, increases small, dense LDL (the type of LDL correlated with inflammation and disease risk). High fat consumption from clean sources such as monounsaturated fats (olive oil) and saturated fat (organic coconut oil) in a diet low in sugar and flours and high in vegetables and fibers can actually improve cholesterol composition (source). So you see that it goes beyond whether or not you eat coconut oil. How is your diet otherwise?
HERE IS THE MAIN TAKEAWAY: It’s not the cholesterol that’s causing heart disease. Cholesterol is produced as a response from your body to counter inflammation, so abnormally high levels are really a symptom, NOT THE PROBLEM. Inflammation is the problem and the cause of disease. The trick to preventing heart disease is to determine the source of the inflammation. As I mention above, it’s some combo of diet, metabolic balance (hormones, digestion, and detox), and lifestyle factors.
So, cholesterol isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The goal is not how low can you go! Cholesterol is associated with longevity, and it does not cause heart disease. If you have elevated LDL (above 140) or elevated dense LDL particles, you have inflammation and need to address that with diet and lifestyle. But I can tell you that your coconut oil alone (in reasonable amounts) isn’t the cause.
So, what’s wrong with the latest AHA recommendation to avoid coconut oil?
- These are old recs based on outdated science: Saturated fat and cholesterol do not cause heart disease
- A rise in cholesterol ISN’T NECESSARILY A BAD THING, provided it’s the right type of cholesterol.
- We need to look at the whole picture, not an isolated ingredient: how is the rest of your diet?
- Biochemical individuality: this means certain genotypes require different amounts of macronutrients. Some people do well on a higher fat diet; others don’t. This is why it’s critical to monitor your blood work.
- Coconut oil doesn’t have the same effect as eating fried food, or even steak or butter. It’s incredibly rich in immune-boosting lauric acid, and as a medium chain triglyceride, it’s burned quickly for fuel, which can have a positive effect on thyroid and metabolism. Coconut oil has myriad positive health benefits.
Another point to keep in mind: how you eat coconut oil and saturated fat matters! If you’re eating saturated fats with lots of sugar and refined carbs, inflammatory effects are amplified. (source)
How Much Coconut Oil Should You Eat?
I love using coconut oil for cooking because it’s very stable and doesn’t break down under high heat. Other fats, especially polyunsaturated, become rancid and produce unhealthy free radicals when exposed to heat. I use it for high temp sauteeing and baking. I don’t slurp coconut oil by the spoonful but occasionally mix it with almond butter and honey for quick energy boost. Like anything else, don’t overdo it.
Get a good mix of olive oil and avocado in there too. Man should not survive on coconut oil alone. You need a good mix of saturated (solid at room temp), monounsaturated (olive oil, avocado), and polyunsaturated fats (omega 3s). I use olive oil for dressing salads and roasting.
Ultimately it’s about what works for you and your body. Get yearly blood work and make adjustments to your diet and lifestyle based on how you feel and what’s going on under the hood, NOT what the headlines say.
Mary Vance is a Certified Nutrition Consultant and author specializing in digestive health. She combines a science-based approach with natural therapies to rebalance the body. In addition to her 1:1 coaching, she offers courses to help you heal your gut and improve your health. Mary lives in San Francisco and Lake Tahoe in Northern California. Read more about her coaching practice here and her background here.