Coconut oil can’t catch a break. Just as it’s riding a wave towards the Superfood Hall of Fame (NOTE: there is no Superfood Hall of Fame), the American Heart Association releases a new report that results in the headline Coconut Oil Isn’t Healthy. It’s Never Been Healthy. Wipe out!
What new discovery caused medical experts and the news media to suddenly change course again on the humble coconut? In this post, we review the history that caused this kerfuffle and offer some practical advice on what you should do now.
Sung to the theme of Gilligan’s Island:
Just sit right back and you’ll hear a tale
A tale of advice gone bad
That started with the best intent
But turned into a fad
Coconuts and Gilligan’s Island
Why Gilligan’s Island? Because from 1964 to 1966, the group of seven castaways survived three seasons, 98 episodes and one cameo by The Harlem Globetrotters, primarily on coconuts. And while people tell me Gilligan’s Island is fiction (the jury’s still out in my mind), many Pacific island cultures actually do (or did) survive and thrive using coconuts as their main source of calories.
But to get a fuller picture, let’s go back in time a little further than 1964 and instead head to 1954. Because that was pretty much the last year of all time that coconut oil and more specifically fat was neither good nor bad but neutral.
It Was a Dark and Stormy Night and the Captain Said to his Crew, “Crew, tell me a story.” And This is the Story They Told
When All Fat Became Bad Fat
In 1955, an American Physiologist named Ancel Keys presented his findings of a dietary study of seven countries that linked high-fat diets to heart disease to the World Health Organization. Over time, Keys refined his findings and specifically identified saturated fat as the main culprit. Saturated fat is the kind of fat that stays solid at room temperature and that comes mostly from animal products and tropical plants, including coconuts.
The American Heart Association (AHA) went all in on Keys theory and fat’s sixty-year reign of terror began. To this day, the powerful AHA has had a bug up its ass about dietary fat. And before you accuse them of being hypocrites, just know that bugs are very low in saturated fat
At the same time, Keys was making a name for himself, another physiologist named John Yudkin had a different take. He claimed that fat wasn’t the culprit, sugar was. However, Keys was a brash American while Yudkin was a proper Brit and as usual, the idiot with the megaphone won.
And in all the time since then, research backs Keys and research refutes Keys. And that’s because healthy diets are never defined by the elimination or inclusion of one ingredient. They’re defined by everything you eat, how you eat and all the other things you do when you aren’t eating.
Reflecting back on the headline “Coconut Oil Isn’t Healthy. It’s Never Been Healthy.” the most accurate part about it is the implication that to this day, we’re almost as clueless about the role of saturated fat in the diet as we were in 1954. Sure, we’ve peeled back a few layers of the onion, but we don’t have enough knowledge to give heart-attack-proof advice to wide swaths of the population
For example, since the days of Ancel Keys, we “learned” that saturated fat raises cholesterol which “causes” cardiovascular disease. But then we learned that not all cholesterol was bad and that saturated fat raises your level of the bad stuff (LDL cholesterol). Later we learned the good stuff wasn’t as good as we though and that not all the bad stuff is really bad. In summary, like Jon Snow, we know nothing.
Coconut Oil Gets an Exemption
In 2004, Dr. Marie-Pierre St-Onge, a professor of nutrition at Columbia University published a series of papers (here’s one) that showed eating and cooking with something called medium chain triglycerides (MCT), a type of molecule found in coconut oil, helps adults burn fat. Study participants ate specially prepared meals rich in MCTs for four weeks. Consuming MCTs reduced their overall fat levels.
And thus, a counter-movement began. Paleo dieting zealots used Dr. St-Onge’s findings along with other cherry-picked data and declared saturated fat as good. Feeling frisky with all that conclusion-jumping, they further determined that dairy, including butter, is bad. So, if you have a hankerin’ fer some paleo-complaint-candy-apple-Buffalo-wings, you better be using lard, tallow or coconut oil. Butter is out.
Meanwhile, Dr. St-Onge notes that her research is misused. Only 14% of coconut oil is comprised of the MCTs she studied. Her experiments used pure MCTs. She even says, “I think the data that we’ve shown with medium chain fatty acids have been extrapolated very liberally. I’ve never done one study on coconut oil.” (Note: Thanks to STAT news for this quote)
What is the extent of this extrapolation? For that, let’s turn to one of the Healthy Lifestyle Militia’s chief warriors, Dr. Josh Axe. A man so handsome and youthful, he must know what he’s talking about.
Coconut Oil – Dr. Axe’s Plant-Based Snake Oil
According to Dr. Axe, coconut oil has amazing curative properties. These include:
|Treats and Prevents Alzheimer’s Disease||Reduces Arthritis Pain||Treats High Blood Pressure|
|Fights Aging (whatever that means)||Reverses Type 2 Diabetes||Treats Colitis|
|Treats and Prevents Cancer||Improves Digestion||Burns Fat|
|Reverses Gall Bladder Disease||Give You Pretty Hair||Prevents Heart Disease|
|Balances Hormones (whatever that means)||Boosts Immunity||Reduces Inflammation|
|Treats Kidney Infections||Treats Liver Disease||Builds Muscle|
|Improves Memory/Brain Function||Improves Oral Health||Clears Your Complexion|
|Reduces Pancreatitis Symptoms||Increases IQ and Focus||Increases Strength|
|Treats Urinary Tract Infections||Treats Ulcers||Stimulates Weight Loss|
|Improves Virility (hubba hubba)|
How could you not be eating coconut oil by the spoonful with all those benefits?
Apparently, the world agrees. Collectively we consume 50% more coconut oil than we did prior to Dr. St-Onge’s research. And that’s just the oil. We’re also eating more of other coconut related products including milk, water and, duh, coconuts.
The American Heart Association Coconut Oil Buzzkill
That brings us to the headline. On June 15, 2017, the AHA threw a turd in the pina colada punch bowl when they issued a report called Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. The 25-page report is loaded with information even less interesting than its title. In response, the news media pumped the AHA for something juicy so they could score a few extra clicks. The response was a pointer to one really long paragraph about coconut oil. Here it is but I paraphrase some key points just below so don’t be frightened by its length. Skip to the next paragraph and you won’t miss out on anything.
A recent survey reported that 72% of the American public rated coconut oil as a “healthy food” compared with 37% of nutritionists. This disconnect between lay and expert opinion can be attributed to the marketing of coconut oil in the popular press. The fatty acid profile of coconut oil is 82% saturated, about half lauric acid, and the rest myristic, palmitic, stearic, and short-chain fatty acids. Lauric acid replacing carbohydrates increases LDL cholesterol but by about half as much as myristic and palmitic acids. Lauric acid increases HDL cholesterol about as much as myristic but more than palmitic acid. The net effect of increasing lauric acid and decreasing carbohydrates is a slight reduction in the ratio of LDL cholesterol to HDL cholesterol. However, as discussed earlier in this report, changes in HDL cholesterol caused by diet or drug treatments can no longer be directly linked to changes in CVD, and therefore, the LDL cholesterol–raising effect should be considered on its own. Furthermore, with respect to CVD, the informative comparison is between coconut oil and vegetable oils high in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. A carefully controlled experiment compared the effects of coconut oil, butter, and safflower oil supplying polyunsaturated linoleic acid. Both butter and coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol compared with safflower oil, butter more than coconut oil, as predicted by the meta-regression analysis of individual dietary saturated fatty acids (Figure 5, right). Another carefully controlled experiment found that coconut oil significantly increased LDL cholesterol compared with olive oil. A recent systematic review found 7 controlled trials, including the 2 just mentioned, that compared coconut 0il with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils. Coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol in all 7 of these trials, significantly in 6 of them. The authors also noted that the 7 trials did not find a difference in raising LDL cholesterol between coconut oil and other oils high in saturated fat such as butter, beef fat, or palm oil. Clinical trials that compared direct effects on CVD of coconut oil and other dietary oils have not been reported. However, because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.
See what kind of bullcrap you gotta wade through when you have an unnatural, irrational and insatiable curiosity about the role of food in your well-being? Fortunately, I summarize the bloviating above with my own brand of bloviating (smartass comments at no extra charge):
- There’s a disconnect between what nutritionists know and people believe. Shocker! People don’t believe the “experts.”
- Coconut oil consists of three kinds of fatty acids known as short-chain, medium-chain and, wait for it, long chain fatty acids. In this case, you can substitute the term “fatty acids” with the equally melodic “triglycerides.”
- These fatty acids raise total cholesterol by raising both LDL (bad) and HDL (good) cholesterol, but the specific composition of coconut oil causes an overall improvement of the LDL to HDL ratio. This ratio is one of the things doctors track when analyzing your blood lipids.
- Recent research indicates that HDL levels are not as good a predictor of heart health as once thought. Therefore we really need to look at coconut oils effect on bad cholesterol, LDL. In other words, we still don’t understand the mechanics of this stuff to give either individual or general advice.
- The AHA cherry picked a bunch of studies (example) that say coconut oil, as opposed to MCTs in isolation, is worse for LDL levels than polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats. And coconut oil is not significantly better than other saturated fats such as butter. The AHA prefers these studies over ones that demonstrate that the type of LDL cholesterol stimulated by coconut oil may be beneficial or at least neutral (example).
- Therefore, according to the AHA, coconut oil is crap. Avoid it.
Coconut Oil – Now What?
But wait, what about Dr. Axe and his list of amazing benefits? Someone’s gotta be wrong. Who is it? Well if our political climate has taught us anything, it’s possible for both sides to be lying and telling the truth at the same time. They do this by employing a tactic that our court system explicitly tries to prevent when you’re compelled to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
But rather than take you through a blow by blow description about what’s wrong with each side’s argument, something you know I’m happy to do if you prod me a little bit. Eh? Eh? No takers?
Okay, then at a high level the AHA’s arguments fall apart because after all these years we still have no freakin’ clue about how cholesterol, even what they call bad cholesterol relates to heart disease.
It took the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 30 years to finally admit that dietary cholesterol, the type of cholesterol contributed by foods like eggs, have little to no impact on blood cholesterol. The AHA is right when it says what we once called good cholesterol but probably in the future will call “meh” cholesterol, is not a good predictor of heart health. It’s true that low HDL is a good predictor of heart disease. But to date, attempts to raise HDL by therapeutic means such as through pharmaceuticals demonstrate no correlation to better heart health.
The AHA is wrong about high LDL as an indicator of heart disease. First of all, within the family of LDL there are four different members, basically different sizes from “small and dense” to “light and fluffy.” Small and dense seems more destructive than light and fluffy.
Second, the LDL value you get from your doctor is a measure of mass. However, the latest evidence implies the number of total cholesterol particles in your blood is a greater predictor of heart disease than either the size or mass. And at this point, nobody has figured out how coconut oil, with its unique composition of fats, effect either cholesterol particle size or number?
The AHA is still living in the 1950s, when Bob Denver was playing Maynard G. Krebs (of Krebs Cycle fame?) and not Gilligan (of “The Professor” Cycle fame?).
On the other hand, Dr. Axe and his ilk play hard and fast with the facts too. There is decent evidence to support many of the claims summarized in the above table. But like Dr. St Ogne’s experiments, much of that evidence is with MCTs only. In many cases, you’d have to gulp a lot of coconut oil to consume the same amounts of MCTs in the experiments. Also, many of the experiments used mice as subjects and while mice have a lot of similarities with humans, there are also major differences. For example, mice are able to manufacture their own Vitamin C whereas we can only get it through food. Those differences in physiology carry over to how we process the foods we eat. Another difference is that mice, to use a technical term, are “icky.” Although, to be fair, so are some humans.
In summary, the science behind all the risks and benefits you hear about coconut oil is interesting but inconclusive. As I said from the start, despite headlines, nothing has changed. Like Gilligan’s Island, this hoopla is basically a rerun of information we had available decades ago. Which leaves us with the proposition of what do we do now.
Coconut Oil – What Would Davey H Do?
Here at the Karma Sense Media Empire, we try to have a consistent message on how all this wellness mumbo jumbo works. Three parts of that message that relate directly to this question include:
You are Not “N”
For the most part, none of the research both sides cite applies directly to you. The only way to be sure most experiments relate directly to you is to be part of it. For example, at this point, few people deny that smoking is bad for your health. There’s tons of research supporting that theory. Yet many of us know people who smoked and lived to a ripe old age. You don’t? Now you do.
The Six Factors That Determine Health
Your health is formulated by six factors, your genes, physiology, physical activity, nutrition, physical surroundings and your mindset. No one in the cited experiments has the same composition of those factors that you do. You don’t have the same composition of those factors that you did when you first started reading this (I’m guessing your mindset changed the most…hopefully in a good way :-)). Research is a long way from being able to simulate and model your exact situation.
ADVICE – Eat Good Fats Daily and Balance a Variety of Good Fats
This brilliant and still valid advice from The Karma Sense Eating Plan (available here or where all books with yellow covers are sold), is relevant to the coconut oil discussion (Finally! Something relevant!).
What it means is that you should eat a relatively equal mix of saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats each day. And since among all of those, it is easiest for people in the developing world to get their fill of saturated fats, don’t add coconut oil to your diet with the expectation of it making you healthier, smarter and prettier without removing other saturated fats. The Western world’s primary sources of saturated fat are meat, dairy, eggs and processed crap.
As it relates to coconut oil, the less processed the source of your coconut oil the better. Your best sources in order of preference are:
- Whole coconut
- Unprocessed coconut milk. Unprocessed coconut milk typically comes in a can. Sometimes it comes in a carton. But if either has any ingredient other than coconut, it’s processed. Skip them.
- Virgin coconut oil
- Refined coconut oil. Use sparingly. Refined coconut oil has many of the same bad characteristics of trans fats/partially hydrogenated oils.
- Just about any chip, cracker, cookie or other packaged food that touts coconut oil as an ingredient. These are garbage. You may as well save money and buy old school junk food.
Extra Bonus Wowie Fun
When you cook with virgin coconut oil, you have to settle for a lower cooking temperature than with the refined version that I advise you to avoid. Virgin coconut oil starts to smoke and basically turn to poison when it reaches a temperature of 350º F or 175º C.
Refined oil starts out more like poison but doesn’t go fully yuck until 400º F or 205º C.
Virgin coconut oil has a coconut flavor so don’t use it with anything that may not agree with that flavor. Cookies or some Asian dishes? Sure. Eggs? Maybe not. Refined coconut oil has more of a neutral taste.
Finally, you can buy 100% medium chain triglyceride oil if you buy into the Dr. Axe schtick. It’s a better representation of what scientists like Dr. St Ogne used in her experiments. It’s also what they use in that ridiculous bulletproof coffee that’s supposed to help you lose weight and be more focused (truth is it helps you lose money and be more gullible). MCT oil costs about twice as much as coconut oil. Coconut oil ain’t no bargain either when you consider high-quality butter and olive oil are about 40-60% cheaper than coconut oil (butter/olive oil is one-quarter the price of MCT oil. Math!)
Coconut Oil – Anecdotal Evidence
Look, all you have to do to glean the truth about coconut oil is observe the castaways of Gilligan’s Island. There is no one-size-fits-all solution that says coconut oil is healthy. Sure, most of the castaways are pretty fit, but then there’s The Skipper. The Professor is pretty smart but then there’s Gilligan. And Ginger is smoking hot. But Maryanne is better and she spent most of her life eating corn.
Thank you to Examine.com for your impeccable research on all nutrition subjects.