In typical mainstream media fashion, what was once the Messiah of the wellbeing world has now been unveiled as a demon in disguise. Having spent a good half of the year slathering its miracle juice all over your body, incorporating it into your daily breakfast routine and even inflicting it on your pets; you now discover that it has all along, been hell bent on callously clogging the arteries of you and your kin.
This is according to a new report from the American Heart Association (AHA), who claim that coconut oil and other foods high in saturated fats increase the bad cholesterol (LDL), putting you at higher risk of a premature departure from heart disease…. This is not to say that the AHA are promoting a low fat diet – which is often brimming with refined sugars and simple carbs (Haribo love to label themselves as fat free, which just epitomises everything wrong with low fat fads). Instead, they hope that people will opt for the healthier unsaturated fats found in nuts and seeds for example, or increase their fibre intake with good old fashioned fruit and veg.
The Science according to The AHA
- coconut oil is 90% sat fat. This is more than butter (60%), beef (40%) and lard (40%). However in their publication, which can be found here, there aren’t actually any specific studies linking coconut oil to heart disease… Their rationale is simply that if coconut oil increases your LDL ‘bad’ cholesterol, then it must be bad for you by default. Double blind, randomised, placebo-controlled, gold standard science fit for wide-spread public advice, in the midst of a global obesity epidemic? No.
- I don’t think this is just the fault of a
credible(see update in the comments below) organisation such as the AHA, more so the propensity of a slow-news-day, first world media to fulfil the valueless role, of lazily spoon feeding the public misinformation.
Credible reasons why coconut oil is NOT the ultimate wonder food (but not necessarily a nutty killer in disguise):
1) As with our political party voting situation – although choosing saturated fat over more processed carbs + sugars (cakes, biccies, bread etc) is ‘less bad’ for you, this doesn’t make them a ‘good’ choice, or the ‘best’ choice for your health.
Pro-coconut studies claiming that saturated fats are healthy, actually compared people who ate sat fat predominantly with people who consumed the more deadly and low fat, carb+sugar combo. In a review of all the studies published (bigger-picture meta-analysis is usually the way forward), when people replaced the saturated fats with unsaturated fats and fibre from unprocessed carbs like veg, they did much better.
2) So back to the main argument that coconut oil raises bad cholesterol (LDL). The saturated fat in coconut oil actually functions differently from the sat fat in your McDonalds deal and carries a much lower risk of heart disease by comparison. This is because it simultaneously raises HDL good cholesterol, which acts like a rubbish truck, removing the LDL from your body. A diet richer in fat than carbs also leads to fewer triglycerides, which are little fat blobs in your blood that swarm the place when you scoff the sweet stuff.
Sugar+Carb consumption is also one of the factors in developing T2 diabetes, a leading cause of heart disease. Therefore anything you can do to keep your sugars low will improve your insulin sensitivity (diabetes is insulin insensitivity).
3) One of the other arguments for coconut oil being a cardiovascular champ, was based on studies of Pacific Islanders with low rates of heart disease. As the Islanders ate vast amounts of the fuzzy flesh, it was believed that their lower incidence of heart disease must be cause and effect. The truth is always more complicated, further studies showed that when these Islanders emigrate to the US, their coconut consumption loses its protective effect. This demonstrates the importance of adopting a healthy lifestyle as a whole, including frequent physical exercise, reduced stress and a good baseline diet in general.
So although coconut oil has finally been de-throned (avocados to follow suit?), nothing is ever as monochrome as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. The grey area takes into consideration, the holistic picture of you as a person and not the reductionist picture of your arteries as a fatty pipeline:
If you’re lucky enough to have won the genetic lottery of possessing good genes and have a health-conscious lifestyle, going nuts for the coco probably won’t break your heart. However if you are overweight, not genetically blessed (interrogate your family on their history of heart disease, slightly cheaper and faster than having your genome mapped), inactive, stressed and comfort eat, then further increasing your sat fat consumption is probably not the best way forward.
Best Ways To Enjoy Coconut Oil
Aside from slathering it on your heads and pets that is, the best way to enjoy the benefits of coconut oil is to consume in moderation, as part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle (are you sick of this mantra yet?).
You should also eat for your genes, I firmly believe that in future, diets will be customised to individuals according to their genome. An example of this is that if you have one or two copies of the Apo E2 gene, then a high fat (ketogenic) diet may be best for you! However slide a few numbers either side and possess the Apo E3 or E4 gene and you’ll find yourself at an increased risk of Coronary catastrophe. We are not all the same and do not react to our environments in the same way, this is why a one-size fits all approach to health and medical care needs to be updated.
If you are interested in getting your genes tested, check out services such as 23&Me. Spit in a test tube that gets sent off in the post and results are subsequently emailed over for you to oggle at, from the comfort of your home. However the FDA no longer allows the release of ‘sensitive data’ so to get the skinny (or fatty) on your Apo Gene in particular, you’ll have to pay an extra 5 dollars to have the results transferred over to Promethease. This organisation can then offer you a jargon-free consultation about what the results really mean.
You should think carefully before deciding to get your genes tested, ‘sensitive data’ includes the fact that a copy of the Apo E4 gene entails a three fold risk of developing Alzheimer’s Dementia… With two copies of the gene, your risk is twenty fold. This can be remedied with lifestyle changes but it is important to consult a professional to fully understand the implications. The results also cannot be guaranteed to be 100% accurate and their scientific basis remains controversial.
If you are over the age of 50, you can test how harmful sat fat would be for you by checking your coronary calcium score. This is usually a cheap test but involves radiation from a CT scan that measures how much plaque is in your heart and calculates a relatively high or low score.
It is also important to note that not everyone with a high cholesterol gets heart disease, cholesterol is just one piece of this heart-breaking puzzle. Furthermore not all LDL is created equal, counterintuitively, the highest risk of heart disease comes from the small, dense fatty LDL molecules. Coconut oil tends to raise the larger, fluffier subtype, which is not so prone to getting itself stuck in your pipes.
There are worse things in this world than the oil of a coconut. Just don’t go completely nutty and enjoy its unique flavour in moderation, as with anything else.