There are currently more than 1,500 studies showing the health benefits of coconut oil. I use coconut oil often. So, I was caught by surprise when a recent headline for a USA Today article read, “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy.”
Now that’s quite the attention-grabber, isn’t it? Is there truth to that headline? Before you go questioning everything you thought you knew about coconut oil, let’s take a step back.
Did you know that 50% of media headlines about medical studies are false? Such headlines don’t accurately match the conclusions from the studies covered, according to a review published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2000. And, the USA Today article headline, which was responding to a new report published by the American Heart Association (AHA), is a perfect example of this.
After reviewing four major studies, the AHA president issued an advisory stating that saturated fats, including coconut oil, should be avoided. At the same time, the AHA is recommending that you instead consume polyunsaturated fats, specifically, corn oil, soybean oil, cottonseed oil, safflower oil, and canola oil—all made from popular genetically modified crops.
Despite the presidential advisory from the AHA, the information in the report is nothing new. In fact, since 1961, the AHA has continuously recommended reducing dietary saturated fat to decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. Let’s look at what’s really going on within the pages of the AHA report.
Studies Are Effectively Cherry-Picked
There have been several meta-analyses and systematic reviews published in recent years that hadn’t found a clear link between heart disease and saturated fat consumption. For instance, a meta-analysis of controlled randomized trials published in the Nutrition Journal in the spring of 2017 concluded that the suggested evidence of replacing saturated fats with mostly omega-6 polyunsaturated fats is unlikely to decrease coronary heart disease events.
However, the AHA picked four main studies from meta-analyses deemed “well performed.” These four studies were from 1969, 1970, 1968, and 1979. The authors also reported that no definitive large-scale clinical trials were carried out since then. Although true, this becomes a major public health concern.
Today’s nutrition recommendations should not be pulled from old studies year after year, especially to represent a so-called “new” report from a well-recognized organization like the AHA. As a result, the AHA will continue to promote 40-plus-year-old nutritional studies for several decades.
Unfortunately, there is industry influence in nutritional sciences. Although the AHA is a nonprofit organization, it receives funds and has a strategic relationship with companies like Coca-Cola, the United Soybean Board, and the U.S. Canola Association.
You can see how certain industry leaders may be able to influence certain AHA recommendations. After all, the AHA did recommend increasing polyunsaturated fats, such as canola oil and soybean oil. Coincidence? Maybe not!
Statistical Significance vs. Clinical Significance
Whenever findings of any study are interpreted and used to inform about human health, it is best to distinguish between clinical significance and statistical significance. Statistics will suggest that a result is significant when the differences between treatment groups are unlikely to have occurred by chance.
For instance, one group may have slightly higher cholesterol than the other group. On the other hand, clinical significance will assert practical importance to the differences in the treatment groups. Clinical significance will want to know whether this slight difference in cholesterol actually causes heart disease.
In the case of the AHA report, the authors only looked at clinical significance through assessing cardiovascular events in just a handful of studies. The rest of the report focused on LDL (low-density lipoprotein) cholesterol.
Several studies presented from the AHA observed cholesterol ranges from 0.6 to 2.1 mg/dL after saturated fat intake was altered. At the same time, when the researchers took repeated blood samples for the cholesterol analysis over several days, LDL cholesterol fluctuated more than 20% in 95% of the participants. So, this means that one day your cholesterol levels are perfect, and the next, you could be recommended statins.
Recommendation to Increase Vegetable Oils
The AHA recommended increasing your intake of omega-6 refined vegetable oils, including corn oil, canola oil, cottonseed oil, and soybean oil. Evidence suggests that the AHA-recommended vegetable oils promote carcinogenesis, whereas omega-3 fatty acids from wild-caught seafood will inhibit the development of cancer.
The dietary 1:1 balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids is integral for the immune system and preventing chronic, long-term, and degenerative diseases. For balancing the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3, it is best to eliminate toxic vegetable oils. It is also a good idea to moderately consume grains and even seeds since they contain a precursor to the omega-6 fatty acid—an arachidonic acid called linoleic acid.
Arachidonic acid produces pro-inflammatory signaling molecules called eicosanoids, including thromboxanes, prostaglandins, and leukotrienes. On the other hand, omega-3 fatty acids will promote less inflammatory mediators.
Why Saturated Fat Is Good
The AHA recommendations of less saturated fat are quite surprising, especially since multiple recent studies have shown no link between heart disease and saturated fat. A meta-analysis of 21 studies and 347,747 people followed for an average of 14 years was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 2010. The study concluded that there was no appreciable relationship between saturated fat consumption and the incidence of stroke or cardiovascular disease.
Another meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Medicine in 2015 concluded that there is no link between saturated fat and risk of coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, or the risk of death from any cause.
At the same time, a study published in the American Journal of Nutrition in 2016 showed that eating a high-fat diet with most of the calories from saturated fat actually improved biomarkers of cardiometabolic risk and insulin resistance, including HDL (high-density lipoprotein) cholesterol, triglycerides, insulin, glycated hemoglobin, and C-peptide. Again, the researchers concluded that their data did not support the idea that dietary fat promotes cardiometabolic syndrome in humans.
Another review published in the PLOS One journal in 2016 found that butter eaters had no risk of heart disease, but they reduced their risk of type 2 diabetes. Other research acknowledges that there is a lack of convincing evidence to recommend high-carbohydrate and low-fat diets for the prevention or treatment of major health problems, such as obesity, diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and cancer.
Busting the Cholesterol Problem
The AHA report also argued that saturated fats like coconut oil will increase LDL cholesterol. However, you should take note that the report only discusses LDL cholesterol.
Some believe that LDL-particles is a better predictor of cardiovascular disease risk rather than LDL cholesterol. It is possible to have high LDL-particles and normal LDL cholesterol.
A study published in the journal Nutrition & Metabolism in 2006 suggested that saturated fat does not increase LDL-particles after comparing lipid profiles in people following a high-fat, low-carb diet and a high-carb, low-fat diet.
Overall, research shows that the effect a certain food has on cholesterol is not a major concern. The most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee report has removed dietary cholesterol as a nutrient of concern, given that the research shows there is no substantial relationship between dietary cholesterol and clinical cardiovascular events or serum cholesterol. As a result, the effect coconut oil has on cholesterol should not prevent you from consuming dietary saturated fats like coconut oil.
At the same time, having low total cholesterol was once thought to be protective against cardiovascular disease, but now, research shows it is linked with a higher risk of death in women. Low cholesterol also has an association with dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, depression, and even suicide.
What Are the Proven Benefits of Coconut Oil?
As mentioned, there are several health benefits of coconut oil. Not only does the research indicate that saturated fat in coconut oil does cause a problem, but the medium-chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs) in coconut oil actually has important antimicrobial and antifungal benefits. MCFAs are also called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
Research uncovers that coconut oil is roughly 62% MCFAs, including 45% lauric acid, seven percent caprylic acid, six percent capric acid, and small amounts of caproic acid. Overall, 91% of the fat in coconut oil is considered healthy saturated fat.
Although fats take a longer time to digest, the MCFAs in coconut oil only go through a three-step process before they become an energy source, compared to a 26-step process with other fats. As a result, unlike long-chain fatty acids found in other oils like soybean, avocado, or olive oil, MCFAs are easier to digest, and they immediately convert into energy rather than being stored as fat.
There is a plethora of scientific research that supports coconut oil health benefits. I almost feel bad that the AHA wasn’t able to find it, as the information is incredibly accessible.
A prospective study published in the Nitricon Hospitalaria journal in 2015 observed improvements in cognitive function in Alzheimer’s patients when given extra virgin coconut oil. Furthermore, other research shows that the cytokinins, hormones, and phenolic compounds in coconut may even prevent the aggregation of amyloid-beta peptide into plaques—a critical step in the formation of Alzheimer’s disease.
Other studies have highlighted the antibacterial, analgesic, anti-inflammatory, and antipyretic properties of virgin coconut oil. Studies have also shown that coconut oil improves blood lipid profile, reduces weight circumference, promotes weight loss, and improves antioxidant status. Coconut oil can also:
- treat urinary and kidney infections
- reduce arthritis
- prevent and treat cancer
- boost the immune system
- improve memory
- increase metabolism
- improve skin and hair
- reduce symptoms of pancreatitis and gallbladder disease
- prevent gum disease and tooth decay
- improve digestion
- prevent osteoporosis
- improve type 2 diabetes
- treat yeast and candida infections
- balance hormones
- prevent heart disease and high blood pressure
Final Thoughts on Coconut Oil and the AHA
Have you seen that study showing coconut oil increases your risk of heart attacks? Likely you haven’t because there is no such study. However, countless studies frequently support the health benefits of coconut oil. It can even reduce side effects associated with many medications. Studies even show that coconut oil reduces side effects and symptoms linked with cancer treatments.
I will tell you about one cautionary note when it comes to coconut oil and saturated fat. Some research indicates that people carrying the APOE4 allele polymorphism gene may negatively impact the brain with greater saturated fat consumption.
In summary, the claims made in the AHA report are simply wrong. The authors of the AHA concluded from four main studies conducted in the 1960s and 1970s, that saturated fat causes heart disease, although today’s research has regularly debunked that fact. Therefore, since coconut oil is high in saturated fat, the AHA concludes that coconut oil causes heart disease and should be avoided.
This logic basically says that all saturated fats are the same, and they’re not. As I explained over and over in this article, saturated fat does not cause heart disease, nor does it affect cholesterol.
Other than a small chance you have a rare genetic problem, there is absolutely no reason to avoid coconut oil or other saturated fat sources like butter or ghee. On the other hand, your body will greatly thank you for adding at least a tablespoon of coconut oil daily to your meals.
What type of coconut oil should you get? Remember that not all coconut oil is the same. The best coconut oil will be virgin, organic, and completely unrefined. Extra virgin coconut oil is mostly considered a marketing ploy, and although it still likely contains health benefits, there aren’t regulating bodies to govern whether the oil is even extra virgin, like there is with olive oil’s industry.
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May, A., “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy,” USA Today, June 16, 2017; https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/06/16/coconut-oil-isnt-healthy-its-never-been-healthy/402719001/.
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Barberger-Gateau, P., et al., “Dietary omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and Alzheimer’s disease: interaction with apolipoprotein E genotype,” Current Alzheimer’s Research, 8(5), 479-491. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21605054.