by Dr. Will Cole
The world is all abuzz over a USA Today article saying coconut oil is not healthy and never was. This article was referencing a statement from the American Heart Association (AHA) saying saturated fats such as coconut oil increase heart attacks and strokes and should not be consumed.
There has never been a debate over the fact that coconut oil contains high amounts of saturated fat and can increase total cholesterol levels. This isn’t new news.
The studies the AHA cite do not link eating more coconut oil to heart disease, they link it to increasing cholesterol numbers.
The reality is, total cholesterol is a poor predictor for assessing heart attack and stroke risk. Studies have found that there might be no association between high total cholesterol and heart attack and stroke risk.
It is very interesting that the AHA is still suggesting for us to switch from using saturated fats like coconut oil to polyunsaturated fats like corn and vegetable oil. One of the references the AHA cites is the Minnesota Coronary Experiment from 40 years ago. A recent reevaluation of the data, published in the British Medical Journal found that the study participants that swapped saturated fats for polyunsaturated corn oil had a 22% increase risk of death for every 30 points their cholesterol went down!
Better predictors for heart attack and stroke risks are high inflammation markers like CRP and homocysteine, low HDL (“good” cholesterol), high triglycerides, and high small dense LDL protein carriers.
The other LDL subtype are the large buoyant particles, the non-oxidized, non-inflamed LDL particles are protective just like HDL.
The truth is, only a small handful of studies in the AHA report deal with coconut oil specifically. The coconut oil studies that the AHA does cite show that it raises both HDL and LDL! Again I would reiterate, coconut oil tends to increase beneficial, large buoyant LDL not small dense LDL.
Researchers have found high-fat diets containing coconut raised HDL, lowering triglycerides and small LDL cholesterol particles. Pacific Islanders who consumed a majority of their calories from coconut fat raised their total cholesterol mainly from their “good” HDL rising. Another meta-analysis published in the British Medical Journal found no association between increased saturated fat intake and heart attack, stroke, and death risk.
A randomized control trial published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a diet rich in fats, including a high percentage of calories from saturated fats, actually lowered cardio-metabolic risk factors: HDL came up, triglycerides came down, insulin sensitivity improved and blood sugar was lowered.
The context and quality of a total cholesterol panel is so much more important than looking at a total cholesterol above 200 and deeming it “bad”. It may be or may not be. Coconut oil seems to, according to the research, improve the quality while yes, increasing the quantity as well.
The problem with saturated fats like coconut oil occurs when people eat them with refined grains (which turn into sugar) such as breads and pasta or sugary foods. This “mixed meal” combination amplifies the inflammation of sugar.
So if you’re not going to eat vegetables and avoid carby junk foods, I suggest limiting your saturated fat intake.
All this coconut flavored saturated fat banter really highlights what functional medicine excels at: finding out what your body loves and hates. We are all different. Seeing thousands of patients over the years, I certainly can’t deny the fact that some people do better with less saturated fats and some thrive with more.
Excerpts of this article appeared in a mindbodygreen article by Liz Moody.