Every day, another health scare makes the headlines. And you know what? Sometimes, these alarming reports are misleading.
The latest scary story is a good case in point. It focuses on a report from the American Heart Association saying that coconut oil is high in saturated fats (cue scary music) and may raise your LDL cholesterol. This all sounds very disturbing, especially if you’re worried about your cardiovascular health.
As you all know by now, I’m a fan of coconut oil. So I’d like to take a minute to set the record straight when it comes to the saturated fat in coconut oil and the LDL issue.
Is saturated fat evil?
One issue raised by the new report is that coconut oil is very high in saturated fat. So the first question we need to address here is: Should you be scared of saturated fat?
Fortunately, the answer is no. Here are two of the most recent studies to address this topic:
- A 2014 meta-analysis (a powerful type of study that combines data from many other studies) found NO association between saturated fat and all-cause mortality, coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, or type 2 diabetes. The researchers concluded, “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats.”
- A 2015 study in the British Medical Journal came to the same conclusions: “Saturated fats are not associated with all-cause mortality, cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, or type 2 diabetes.”
Clearly, saturated fat isn’t a bogeyman when it comes to your cardiovascular health. As cardiologist Aseem Malhotra recently put it, “This idea that dietary saturated fats build up in the coronary arteries is complete unscientific nonsense.”
Let me add three caveats here, however:
- First, it does appear that it’s not good to eat saturated fat along with huge amounts of carbohydrates and sugar, because this can increase the bad effects of the carbs and sugar. The solution here is obvious: cut out the carbs and sugar, not the fat! If you aren’t willing to do that, then you should limit your saturated fat intake.
- Second, saturated fats are healthy, but you don’t want to overload yourself with them. One problem I see in my practice is that many dieters interpret “low-carb” to mean “eat tons of fat.” That’s a bad idea with coconut oil or any other fat, no matter how healthy it is.
- Third, different bodies respond in different ways to foods, so the right amount of saturated fat for one person might be too much for another. One thing I stress as a naturopathic physician is to do what works for your own body.
By the way, while we’re talking about saturated fats, one important thing to know is that coconut oil is different from other types of saturated fat. That’s because the saturated fats in coconut are primarily medium-chain triglycerides, which are easier to metabolize and are burned quickly as energy rather than stored as fat. Here’s what one group of researchers recently had to say about the beneficial properties of coconut oil:
Unlike most other dietary fats that are high in long-chain fatty acids, coconut oil comprises medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA). MCFA are unique in that they are easily absorbed and metabolized by the liver, and can be converted to ketones. Ketone bodies are an important alternative energy source in the brain, and may be beneficial to people developing or already with memory impairment, as in Alzheimer’s disease (AD)… Evidence is mounting to support the concept that coconut may be beneficial in the treatment of obesity, dyslipidaemia, elevated LDL, insulin resistance and hypertension— these are the risk factors for CVD and type 2 diabetes, and also for AD.
Sounds remarkably healthy to me… how about you?
Does coconut oil worsen your cholesterol?
The AHA’s report is surprisingly out-of-date when it comes to cholesterol. That’s because here’s something the rest of us have known for years: It’s not your overall cholesterol but your ratio of good to bad cholesterol that matters.
So let’s look at the evidence when it comes to coconut oil, cholesterol, and related health markers.
- In one study, 40 women with abdominal obesity ate soybean oil or coconut oil three times a day for 12 weeks. They also ate a low-calorie diet and walked 50 minutes a day. Both groups lost weight, but the coconut oil group reduced their waist circumference, while the soybean oil group experienced a slight increase. Moreover, the coconut oil group had increased levels of HDL (the “good” cholesterol) and a 35 percent decrease in C-reactive protein (CRP), an inflammatory marker.
- In another study, 11 women ate three different diets: a high-fat, coconut oil based diet; a low-fat, coconut oil based diet; and a diet in which most of the oils were highly unsaturated. The women ate each diet for about three weeks, eating their regular diets for one week in between. The result: Women who consumed the high-fat, coconut oil based diet had the largest reductions in markers of inflammation after meals, as well as the greatest reduction in fasting markers of heart disease risk.
- Still another study, this one of 116 patients with coronary artery disease, found that a diet rich in coconut oil increased HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) and decreased waist circumference and body mass.
In short, while coconut oil may raise LDL levels, studies confirm that it also raises HDL levels—and it’s the ratio that matters here. In addition, the research shows that a diet rich in coconut oil leads to weight loss, reductions in body mass, and a drop in CRP (which is a very important marker for inflammation and cardiovascular risk).
The bottom line…
The evidence clearly shows that coconut oil is good for your heart. It optimizes your HDL, helps you shed excess pounds, and reduces inflammation—which is the #1 cause of heart disease. (Want a bonus? It even has anti-microbial properties.) As with any fat, you don’t want to overdo it—but adding a little bit to your diet is likely to do wonders for you.
So my advice is: Ignore the AHA’s fear-mongering, and look at the facts. These facts clearly show that coconut oil is good for your heart, good for your waistline, and good for your health.
Keep thinking Big and living BOLD!