The Coconut Oil Chaos
Updated: Sep 5, 2020
Last month, the American Heart Association came out with a Presidential Advisory statement about dietary fats, in which part of it denounced the use of coconut oil. In reaction, the internet FREAKED OUT! This angered many coconut fanatics, who then fought back with information of their own. The study sparked much confusion, as most people were under the impression that coconut oil was healthy. The AHA statement itself indicated that 72% of Americans may have this conception.
Definitions To Help You Out:
Saturated fats- “bad” fat found in foods that have been shown to increase LDL cholesterol and increase cardiovascular disease
Polyunsaturated fat- a type of “good” unsaturated fat found in corn, soybean oil, walnuts and flaxseed
Monounsaturated fat- a type of “good” unsaturated fat found in olive, canola, peanut and sunflower oils and avocados
Cardiovascular disease- an umbrella term that includes coronary artery disease, heart attack, stroke, and other medical issues related to the heart and vessels
LDL Cholesterol- "bad" cholesterol in your blood
HDL Cholesterol- "good" cholesterol in your blood
I usually stay away from commenting on controversial issues, because frankly I hate arguing and it makes me stressed. However, with everyone talking about this topic I felt the need to put my two cents in.
To put my personal opinions out there, I was very relieved to see that the AHA had a concrete, specific comment to make about coconut oil. I have always been “against” the use of coconut oil as it is very high in saturated fat. However, when patients would ask my opinion on adding coconut oil to their diets, I didn't really have a lot of facts to support my belief. We know that it contains large amounts of saturated fats, which increases LDL cholesterol, a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. The counterargument to this has been that since coconut and palm kernel oil are from plant sources, unlike all other sources of saturated fat, maybe these act on the body differently. At this time, that theory still hasn't been proven or refuted.
Before writing my blog post, I wanted to do some research. Very surprisingly, it was actually an emotional journey that made me question my thoughts on everything I know. Really. That all happened. In the end though, everything came full circle and all was right with my world.
I started out by reading what the opposition of my stance had to say. Why is everyone so in love with coconut oil? According to its internet supporters, this “superfood” is great for energy and easy to digest; it can help you lose weight and may prevent cancer. Coconut oil is largely lauric acid, a type of saturated fat that is a medium chain triglyceride (MCT for short). I first became aware of MCTs in school when studying the pancreas. We learned that some patients having certain digestive problems related to issues with their pancreas could potentially benefit from MCTs being added to their diet. This is because MCT fats are unique in that they do not require pancreatic enzymes to be digested. It may be worth noting that typically, these patients were very sick, and were receiving their nutrition intravenously. Coconut oil supporters suggest that this characteristic may benefit the general public as well.
All of this information was very attractive. This coconut oil really does sound amazing. I wanted to know more, so I looked to a predominant figure in the coconut oil movement, Dave Asprey. He is the guy that came up with “Bulletproof coffee”. He wants you to put a specific concentrated type of coconut oil he sells as well as butter in your coffee every morning. Asprey, along with his supporters, tend to be very distrustful of guidelines proposed by the AHA and other government entities. The nutritional ideas and practices they promote are often in direct opposition to those guidelines. His rebuttal to the AHA statement regarding coconut oil raised some interesting concerns, and I must admit, had me questioning a couple things specifically. First, he mentioned that the Canola Oil Council sponsors the AHA. "Big" canola oil wants coconut oil to stop stealing their sales, so they need the AHA to back them up. I always assumed that “evidenced-based guidelines” are based on good and fair data for the best interest of the people. Am I being naive though? Money talks and maybe there is more to this that I realize. Also, he mentioned the Sydney Diet Heart Study which showed that eating less saturated fat and more polyunsaturated fat actually INCREASED heart disease and death. Whoa, this is the exact opposite of what AHA has said. Is the AHA just conveniently ignoring studies that disagree with what they want to include? This is when I kind of lost it. Dave Asprey may be on to something here! All these coconut fanatics might know things that I don’t- and I’m the professional. Have I been mislead this whole time?
At this point, I needed to step back, take a breath and actually read the 24 page statement released by the AHA. When I started reading, I was skeptical of every word. I read a sentence that said "clinical trials that used polyunsaturated fat to replace saturated fat reduced the incidence of CVD”. No, AHA you’re wrong! The Sydney Diet Heart Study said the exact opposite- Dave told me! I even looked at the study myself and it did appear legitimate. Oh my goodness. My world has shattered. I kept reading though. Six more pages in, they actually do mention the Sydney study I’ve already mentioned. Here we go. How are they going to twist this around? They spent a large paragraph talking about the study. It was done in the 1960s and ‘70s, before we know some things we know now. Turns out, the participants that were assigned to the polyunsaturated diet were also given trans fats from partially hydrogenated vegetables oils. We didn't know trans fats were bad at that time; no wonder they got heart disease and died! Because of this, the AHA did not include this study in its analysis. My world is coming back together.
What about that Canola Oil Council money though? Well, page after page the statement kept stating that substituting saturated fat for any unsaturated fat is good, but polyunsaturated makes much more of a difference than monounsaturated. Guess what? Canola oil is made of mostly of monounsaturated fat. This AHA statement is far from an advertisement for canola in any way- it promotes polyunsaturated over monounsaturated oils pretty repetitively.
So, what did the statement actually say about coconut oil? There’s only a half a page about coconut oil specifically, but three big points were discussed. 1) In 7 controlled studies that looked at the effects of coconut oil, all of them showed it raised LDL cholesterol. In 6 of them it was a statistically significant amount. 2) Lauric acid (that medium chain fatty acid) does raise HDL cholesterol, which is potentially a good thing, but we actually don’t know how good that really is. 3) There are currently no studies that compare the direct effects of coconut oil on cardiovascular disease. Because of this, the AHA advises against the use of coconut oil because we know it raises LDL cholesterol which we know increased risk for cardiovascular disease.
So back to Dave Asprey’s views. Who is he and what are his qualifications anyway? He is not a health professional, he is not a scientist, and he is not a researcher. My opinion is that he is a guy that used to be obese and lost weight and is using this opportunity to sell products. Just like so many others on the internet, I think he may be taking half truths and manipulating them in ways to prove what he wants to prove. Many bloggers and health gurus have very popular (and profitable) enterprises, with books and websites chalk full of impressive science jargon and misinformation. Just because something sounds smart and sounds like it makes sense, doesn’t make it true. Remember the movie Jurassic Park? Of course you do. In the movie, they said that they took dinosaur DNA from blood found in mosquitoes that were fossilized in amber. They then took this DNA and put it into a crocodile ova to create an embryo. The embryo was put into and egg and they incubated the egg to allow them to hatch. That sounds totally legitimate the way they explain it. It totally makes sense. However, none of it is scientifically valid. It’s just a movie and that's not possible at all. Just because something sounds smart and sounds like it makes sense, doesn’t make it true.
The conclusions I arrived at are actually not far from my original preconceptions. Coconut oil is not a “superfood” as superfoods aren’t even a real thing. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat and the evidence is showing pretty clearly that this is bad. I do realize we don’t have all the answers, as this is a very complex topic. I think the biggest thing to realize is, there are no studies that compare the direct effects of coconut oil on cardiovascular disease. Because of this, we have to make some inferences on what knowledge we already have. This is sometimes frustrating, but we are never going to have 100% of the information we need to make decisions. In life, when all the information points to a certain answer you can’t discredit all of that information just because there’s a small chance there could be other information that leads to a different answer. That’s just not how it works.
I do want to clarify, I personally believe if you have a favorite recipe that calls for coconut oil, make it once in a while. Everything in moderation. For example, I think we can all agree that donuts are not good for you. However, if you like donuts, eat them from time to time. We shouldn't feel shameful for eating “bad foods" and we should never make anyone else fell shameful for this either.
One point to take away from this is that we can’t rely on these misinformed individuals and groups to steer us in the wrong direction. If we want to take control of our health, we shouldn’t rely on fad diets or specific foods. I totally get how trends such as these seem attractive. I am an educated health professional, but reading all of these passionate arguments defending coconut oil and touting its benefits had me believing them for a short period of time. All the anecdotal evidence (i.e. “My sister started putting coconut oil in her coffee and she lost 20 pounds”) is very enticing. I get it. I also think a healthy dose of scrutiny of government and large organization guidelines should be encouraged. With that being said, I truly believe that the American Heart Association has everyone’s best interests in mind when it comes to their recommendations.
A diet that contains all of the food groups with a concentration on fruits, vegetables, whole grains and unsaturated fats is the key to success. No fad diet or fancy product is every going to change this. The truth is not flashy or cool, but it’s what I’m sticking to.