Before you go dumping your coconut oil after the media broke news demonizing coconut oil after a new American Heart Association Report, read this.
“Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy.”
The second I got a text from my friend Irina, asking me what I thought about the breaking coconut oil scandal, I didn’t even have to open the article to know what it was going to say. I just knew it would be some version of “Coconut oil is high in saturated fat. Saturated fat is bad for you. Coconut oil is bad for you.”
During the 50s, coconut oil fell out of favor because of study by Ancel Keys which suggested what is known as the saturated fat-cholesterol-heart disease hypothesis. (I emphasize hypothesis, because it is just that – a hypothesis). It states that saturated fats raise serum cholesterol which in turn increases the risk for heart disease. (True story: In the 1960s, the sugar industry paid scientists to play down the link between sugar and heart disease, and instead blame saturated fat…that’s right – sugar is more likely to cause a heart attack than saturated fat).
In the study, Keys used margarine and hydrogenated coconut oil (which is not the type of coconut oil you buy at the health food store) as sources of saturated fat. Both contain trans-fat, and we now know for sure that trans-fat consumption raises your risk of heart disease. In 2012 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that up to 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 cardiac deaths each year are caused by trans-fat consumption. Since 1956, scientific evidence suggesting the inextricable link between trans-fats and heart disease started mounting – so much so that the FDA has finally decided to remove them from the food supply…completely! After June 2018, manufacturers will no longer be able to use hydrogenated oils/trans -fats.
The increase in serum cholesterol that Keys observed after hydrogenated coconut oil consumption may have been due to the trans-fat, which would make his conclusion invalid.
Why Did Coconut Oil Fall Out of Favor?
After that landmark study, researchers continued to study saturated fats. Despite the fact that the most studied saturated fats have been from animal sources and hydrogenated oils, the unrefined coconut oil sitting in your kitchen cabinet often gets lumped in with it because it is high in saturated fat.
Coconut oil was largely shunned through the 60s, 70s, and heaven-forbid, the low-fat and no-fat crazed 80s and 90s.
But then, in the 2000s, coconut oil made a comeback in the health food store – elbowing out vegetable oils, which were enjoying their reign in prior decades. It was touted for all sorts of benefits, from boosting your metabolism, to fighting off illness, to making your hair shiny and skin glowing. Today it is one of the most popular oils in the health food store.
But what about the saturated fat causes heart disease hypothesis?
Evidence Suggesting Saturated Fat Does NOT Cause Heart Disease
In 2010, a meta-analysis exonerating saturated fat was published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. It pooled together data from 21 unique studies that included almost 350,000 people, about 11,000 of whom developed cardiovascular disease (CVD), tracked for an average of 14 years, and concluded that there is no relationship between the intake of saturated fat and the incidence of heart disease or stroke.
Another meta-analysis, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015 concluded the same.
But What About The Recent Headline?!
So lets fast forward to this “breaking news.”
The American Heart Association published a report and issued a statement condemning coconut oil based on their meta-analysis.
A meta-analysis is a study of studies – researchers pool data from numerous studies to draw a conclusion.
Out of their entire analysis, only three studies in their study actually looked at coconut oil specifically (others looked at other saturated fats).
This is what the studies found:
Study 1: Compared coconut oil, butter and safflower oil and found that both coconut oil and butter raise LDL cholesterol, although coconut oil to a lesser extent.
Study 2: Compared coconut oil with olive oil and found that coconut oil raised LDL more than olive oil.
Study 3: a meta-analysis of 7 studies, of which the prior two were included that found that coconut oil increased LDL cholesterol more than oils high in polyunsaturated fats.
But does this make coconut oil bad, or just different?
We know that a low glycemic diet, one which keeps blood sugar stable, is the healthiest diet. An apple is going to raise your blood sugar more than a cucumber. Does that mean you should never eat an apple? NO!
The AHA Conclusion
Based on their meta-analysis, the American Heart Association’s Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease advisory warned:
“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.”
Instead, they suggest people switch to vegetable oils including corn oil, soybean oil, peanut oil and canola oil, on the basis that they all contain high amounts of polyunsaturated fats.
What the what?!?!?!? These are the LEAST HEALTHY OILS you can buy.
Vegetables Oil Are The Least Healthy Oils
To think of foods in terms of their macro or micro nutrient parts, instead of the food as whole, is, in my opinion, an outdated way of evaluating a food.
Saturated fats are not created equal! Poly-unsaturated fats are not created equal!(Neither are calories, protein, or carbs, for that matter).
We have to look at food as a whole.
Despite the fact that the vegetable oils recommended contain polyunsaturated fats, which have been dubbed “healthy fats” and don’t contain unsaturated fats, which have been dubbed “unhealthy” fats by the mainstream medical community, these oils are anything but healthy!
These oils are chemically extracted and deodorized, which exposes them to high heat and oxygen which could turn even the healthiest oil into an unhealthy one.
When you study the effect of the oil as a whole (not as its macronutrient parts) you see that these oils don’t lead to favorable health outcomes.
SOYBEAN OIL: Soybean oil is quite possibly, the unhealthiest oil. Besides the fact that is is genetically modified (which poses it’s own health concerns), research suggests that soybean oil is worse for our health than sugar (and we know how bad sugar is).
A study published in PLOS One by UC Riverside scientists, compared four diets – one rich in coconut oil, one rich in soybean oil, and one rich in fructose (the sugar found in soda and largely blamed for diabetes and obesity epidemic), and one with a combo of all three. The scientists found that, as imagined, the fructose diet increased weight gain, diabetes, and fatty liver disease in mice. But, perhaps surprisingly, the soybean oil diet increased them even more so!
“Compared to mice on the high coconut oil diet, mice on the high soybean oil diet showed increased weight gain, larger fat deposits, a fatty liver with signs of injury, diabetes and insulin resistance, all of which are part of the Metabolic Syndrome. Fructose in the diet had less severe metabolic effects than soybean oil although it did cause more negative effects in the kidney and a marked increase in prolapsed rectums, a symptom of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which like obesity is on the rise.
The mice on the soybean oil-enriched diet gained almost 25 percent more weight than the mice on the coconut oil diet and 9 percent more weight than those on the fructose-enriched diet. And the mice on the fructose-enriched diet gained 12 percent more weight than those on a coconut oil rich diet.” (Source)
Note that soybean oil is also high in pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids.
Soybean oil is currently the most consumed oil in the US – accounting for a whopping 60% of total oil intake. It is found mostly in packaged foods, margarine, salad dressing, and snack foods.
While soybean oil isn’t the only factor, surely, as the most consumed oil, it contributes to our current state of health – according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 70% of the population is overweight or obese, while 1 in 3 women die of heart disease each year.
CORN OIL: Like soybean oil, corn oil is also GMO or genetically modified and high in omega-6 fatty acids, which can trigger the body to produce pro-inflammatory chemicals when consumed in excessive amounts. Research suggests that genetically modified foods may pose a hazard to our health.
Additionally, in a separate study, those same UC riverside researchers found that corn oil had a similar negative effects on weight and metabolic syndrome as soybean oil, although to a lesser extent.
CANOLA OIL: While both soybean and corn oil are relatively well known to be unhealthy, canola oil is one that maddeningly seems to turn up as a healthy oil – in fact it’s what Whole Foods uses for much of their food in their hot food bar – and just one of the many things they get flak for.
Canola oil is typically genetically modified. It’s derived from the rapeseed, and, like the others, is chemically extracted via a hexane bath, a chemical questioned for its link to neurotoxicity. Vegetable oil proponents acknowledge that trace amounts of hexane remain in the oil we consume, but “there is no evidence to substantiate any risk or danger to consumer health when foods containing trace residual concentrations of hexane are ingested.” Meanwhile, the US Department of Health and Human Services has a 269 page paper on the toxicological profile of hexane. While the documented negative effects are indeed seen when someone is exposed to the chemical in large doses, just because we don’t have any current studies on the effects of small doses of hexane over a long period of time, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a risk. Hexane is not allowed to be used in organic oils.
What’s more the omega-3 fatty acids that canola oil is touted for, can be converted into trans-fats when undergoing heavy processing. Researchers at the University of Florida, Gainsville, found trans fat levels as high as 4.6 percent in commercial canola oil.
Bottom line: Is coconut oil bad for you?
From the current studies we have, which show coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, I’m not convinced that makes coconut oil bad.
Personally, I use coconut oil to cook and in desserts, and won’t be stopping. (That being said, I also rotate it with avocado and olive oils, depending what I’m making.)
And I’m definitely not throwing out my coconut oil to replace it with vegetable oils, which I know for sure, aren’t healthy.
According to Functional Medicine Doctor Mark Hyman:
“Interestingly, countries with the highest intakes of coconut oil have the lowest rates of heart disease.
While research shows coconut oil contains higher amounts of saturated fat and does increase total cholesterol, those amounts do not increase your heart attack or stroke risk.
In fact, one study among lean, heart disease- and stroke-free Pacific Islanders who consumed up to 63 percent of their calories from coconut fat found total cholesterol rose but so did their “good” HDL.
Other studies found lipid profiles improve on high-fat diets containing coconut oil. Researchers concluded it wasn’t saturated fat from coconuts that negatively impacted cholesterol profile. Instead, the coconut oil’s overall effect raised HDL while lowering triglycerides and small LDL cholesterol particles, which is definitely a good thing.
Total cholesterol is not an accurate predictor of heart disease or stroke. Inflammation is the culprit for most diseases, and coconut oil is highly anti-inflammatory.”
Functional and Integrative Medicine doctors seem to be on the “coconut oil side,” while the mainstream medical associations and doctors are promoting vegetable oils.
Just remember – doctors used to promote smoking, too.
If you’re confused about what to eat, or want to learn more about navigating all the media headlines, check out my book The Real Food Grocery Guide.
Maria Marlowe is a holistic nutrition and wellness coach who uses real food to help her clients improve their health, weight, and skin. She offers a healthy eating meal plan that teaches you how to batch cook, as well as one to clear up acne. She has ongoing group workshops both in NYC and online, and writes healthy and delicious plant-based recipes for her popular blog. She is also the author of the #1 New Release on Amazon, The Real Food Grocery Guide, the most practical guide to selecting the healthiest foods, without going broke, which has been praised by Dr. Oz and InStyle magazines. You can find her on instagram @mariamarlowe.