Coconut oil has gained much attention because of a recent American Heart Association (AHA) publication. The intention of this post is to shed some light on this confusing issue and answer the question: Is coconut oil healthy for you?
On June 15, 2017, the AHA released an advisory paper on dietary fats and cardiovascular disease (CVD)1. They have found that in recent studies, a lowered intake of dietary saturated fat and when replaced with polyunsaturated vegetable oil reduced cardiovascular disease by ~30%. However, when saturated fats are replaced with refined carbohydrates and sugars, it did not reduce CVD in clinical trials. Among their recommendations, they also advised against the use of coconut oil. Studies have shown that since coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, they are recommending against the consumption of coconut oil.
On the other side of the debate, there is also evidence to show that dietary saturated fat does not increase the likelihood of heart disease. A meta-analysis of prospective epidemiologic studies showed that there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CVD2. Dr. Mark Hyman, MD says there is increasing evidence to show that heart disease is not likely caused by saturated fat and cholesterol3, but rather that heart disease is caused by inflammation4. With respect to coconut oil, he also indicates that populations living in the South Pacific have been eating coconut oil as a significant part of their diet for thousands of years with little incidence of heart disease or diabetes4,6. Although it needs to be taken into consideration that their diet and lifestyles are very different from a typical Western diet.
In the coconut oil controversy, the issue is not as simple as all the headlines and news stories make it out to be. Here are a few things worthy of consideration:
The number of research studies conducted on the effect of coconut oil in humans are minimal. No one can say conclusively what the overall effect actually is. This overall effect is also largely dependent on the diet and lifestyle practices of an individual. So it is best not to view a single food or macronutrient independently of the overall diet within which it is being consumed.
It is also important to realize that dietary fats are made up of a combination of saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. As well, saturated fats are a class of compounds that includes stearic acid, lauric acid, myristic acid and palmitic acid1. Each of these types of saturated fats are not equal. Stearic acid and lauric acid have been shown to be less harmful to the body, whereas myristic acid and palmitic acid are potentially harmful contributing to inflammation and elevated lipid levels5.
Coconut oil is 82% saturated fat with about half made up of lauric acid and the remainder consisting of myristic acid, palmitic acid, stearic acid and short chain fatty acids1. It is the lauric acid that contributes to many of coconut oil’s health benefits, including raising HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol), it is less likely to be stored in adipose tissue and contribute to obesity and can be neuroprotective6. While coconut oil has many health benefits, it also contains the pro-inflammatory saturated fats which is why it should be eaten in moderation.
Many studies have shown that saturated fats, specifically palmitic acid and myristic acid are found in dairy, meat and processed foods. These foods are largely known to be pro-inflammatory.
All oils are a mix of fatty acid types. While olive oil is known to be high in monounsaturated fats (73%) in the form of oleic acid, it also contains polyunsaturated fats (10%) and saturated fat (14%)1.
Given all this discussion about saturated fats, often times the benefits of saturated fats are forgotten. Keep in mind that saturated fats are needed by the body for the health of every cell membrane, to provide the body with cholesterol which is needed for hormone production and for brain health.
Even though the AHA recommends choosing polyunsaturated vegetable oils over saturated fats, this advice should be taken with some caution. Vegetable oils are highly processed and therefore should be consumed very minimally.
When cooking at high temperatures use a saturated fat such as coconut oil or ghee, since they are more stable. Vegetable oils are less stable and easily oxidized.
Remember to always think of health in the broader context. Focusing our attention on the minutiae of diet and nutrition can be harmful since we lose sight of the bigger picture. It is more worthwhile to pay attention to your overall dietary patterns, than to focus on whether one food or one nutrient is better for you than another. The golden rule of nutrition is to eat a whole foods diet full of a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables, complex carbohyrates, organic and/or grass fed meat, beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, and to keep it all in moderation. Eating coconut oil in the context of a whole foods diet will have a different overall effect than eating coconut oil in the context of the Standard American Diet (SAD). For the latter, coconut oil may be helpful but any benefits will be negligible as the SAD diet itself is more detrimental to good health.
Finally, media hype can sway you from one opinion to another. It creates a tremendous amount of confusion and makes it very difficult to know what is best for own health. The best recommendation is not to react to the various headlines. Do your own research, ask lots of questions and be sure to consume a variety of food in moderation.
Coconut oil consumed in moderation as part of an overall healthy diet can be beneficial for your health. However, it should not be eaten excessively, since while it contains lauric acid, a healthy saturated fat, it also contains pro-inflammatory saturated fats. For the best way to include healthy fats in your diet, consume more foods that are high in monounsaturated fats, including olive oil, avocados, nuts and seeds.
To your good health…
Sacks et al. Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease – A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2017; e1-e24. (published online: June 15, 2017).
Siri-Tarino PW et al. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. Am J Clin Nutr. 2010;91:535-46.
Nutrition Coalition Organization, http://www.nutrition-coalition.org/saturated-fats-do-they-cause-heart-disease/
Mark Hyman, MD., http://drhyman.com/blog/2017/06/26/coconut-oil/
Martinez L et al. Myristic acid potentiates palmitic acid-induced lipotoxicity and steatohepatitis associated with lipodystrophy by sustaining de novo ceramide synthesis. Oncotarget. 2015 Dec 8: 6(39):41479-96.
McCarty, MF, DiNicolantonio JJ. Lauric acid-rich medium-chain triglycerides can substitute for other oils in cooking applications and may have limited pathogenicity. Open Heart. 2016; Jul 27:3(2):1-5.