A few months ago, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a report, the Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory, that triggered a maelstrom of controversy around coconut oil. Although the report quoted studies as old as 1995, and was authored by researchers with ties to the Canola Oil Council and other groups, coconut oil was suddenly cast in a sinister light.
What’s the truth about coconut oil and, for that matter, other cooking oils and fats (and butter)?
Do saturated fats cause heart disease?
There is ample evidence suggesting they don’t. A meta-analysis of 41 studies examining saturated fat and heart disease found that saturated fats are not associated with cardiovascular disease, heart disease, stroke, or diabetes. Another meta-analysis found “no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of (cardiovascular disease).”
Does coconut oil raise cholesterol?
Yes, it can for some people. Coconut oil increases beneficial HDL cholesterol levels, most likely because it’s rich in a type of saturated fat called lauric acid, which has been shown to increase HDL levels as well as LDL levels, creating a neutral effect. Some studies have also found lauric acid can increase HDL without impacting LDL levels, and tends to decrease total to LDL cholesterol levels. Additionally, studies have found people who eat more coconut have higher levels of HDL cholesterol.
Does high cholesterol cause heart disease?
That’s the real question. Many recent studies question the relationship between cholesterol and cardiovascular disease, pointing instead to numerous other factors that increase the risk of heart disease. Key among these is inflammation, caused by sugar, excess carbohydrates, and low intake of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables. When inflammatory cells proliferate in blood vessels, they encourage the buildup of plaque on artery walls. The body responds by sending in white blood cells. Over time, if plaque continues to build, artery walls thicken and harden, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke. Even so, the medical community has been slow to shift its focus from vilifying saturated fat as a cause of high cholesterol, and high cholesterol as a cause of heart disease.
Is coconut oil really “worse than beef fat and butter?” No, it’s better. Coconut oil is free of nitrates, hormones, and antibiotics found in animal products. It’s vegan, plant-sourced, and sustainable. And unlike other sources of saturated fat, it’s high in lauric acid.
Does coconut oil promote weight loss, prevent Alzheimer’s, and slow aging?
Probably not. The idea that coconut oil promotes weight-loss gained popularity after a study found medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) increased metabolism and promoted weight loss. But the study was done with 100 percent MCTs, and coconut oil contains only 15 percent MCTs. The Alzheimer’s claim was based on the idea that, while the brain loses its ability to convert glucose in Alzheimer’s patients, it can use ketones, which can be converted by the liver from MCTs. But eating coconut oil doesn’t raise ketone levels in the brain high enough to counter the effects of Alzheimer’s. As for the coconut-oil-slows-aging claim, that may be true if you rub it on your skin.
Having said that, coconut oil has many other merits. Virgin coconut oil is high in antioxidants, including p-coumaric acid, which can protect against cancer. It has natural antibacterial, antifungal, and analgesic properties.
Bottom line? Don’t ditch your coconut oil. It may not be a miracle food, but it’s not evil, and the saturated fat content is only part of the story. Use it for baking, sautéing, and roasting, along with other good fats like olive oil, fatty fish, avocado, and whole nuts.