Coconut oil is good. Coconut oil is bad. If you read the recent AHA announcement earlier this month and want to yell “Shut up, shut up! Stop confusing me!” then you’re not alone. It seems every other week the media releases a new headline that contradicts what you’ve read somewhere else or been told by a healthcare practitioner or nutritionist.
Is Coconut Oil Good For You?
Unfortunately, this is a world where news and media sells and where a new spin on a health topic will almost always win over the boring truth. So before I answer the question “Is coconut oil good for you or not?”, I want to bring up three key issues that are important to be aware of before you read absolutely anything on health and nutrition online.
Issue 1: Nutrition science is flawed
In order to run an experiment, plot data onto a graph and present results, scientists need to use isolated variables that can be measured and tracked. When it comes to pharmacology, this is simpler to do as you are studying the effect of a single drug, with a consistent chemical structure.
But how do you measure an apple that is not standardized and made in a lab, has hundreds of components, including vitamins, minerals, fiber, natural sugars, antioxidants and more?
Herein lies the problem. Even the simplest of food is hopelessly complex to study, so scientists end up having to focus on isolated nutrients (such as Vitamin C in the apple) instead. As Marion Nestle puts it, this “ takes the nutrient out of the context of food, the food out of the context of diet and the diet out of the context of lifestyle.”
When we solely focus on isolated nutrients (e.g. saturated fat, Omega 3s, fiber, cholesterol), we are not only missing the bigger picture of a healthy lifestyle, we are giving the food industry permission to market fake, processed food to us in a convincing manner.
Allow me to demonstrate with an example
Like most people, you know that apples are good for you.
One day, a scientist releases research that apples have ‘pectin fiber’ which helps you feel full and lose weight.
The next month, a food marketer creates a new chewy apple-flavored granola bar with a claim that says ‘high in pectin fiber’.
You the consumer, having read that pectin fiber helps you lose weight will go out and buy this granola bar, which is actually full of sugar, preservatives and more.
Bottom line: you would have been better off without reading that research and without that granola bar, if you listened to basic logic that fruit is good for you and ate an apple.
I would also ask you to consider this: North America has some of the highest rates of chronic illness such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes even though we obsess over nutrients. In contrast, the French enjoy butter, bread and meat without obsessing over saturated fats or calories, and are a far healthier population.
Issue 2: Scientists need to get published
Ever wondered how a scientist makes money? Like the rest of us, scientists have a career ladder they need to climb and line items to add to their resume in order to secure a higher salary. This Forbes article shows how the more influential you are in the science arena i.e. getting published, making headlines, and getting grants, the higher your earning potential.
While I would like to believe that all research that is pushed out is necessary and meaningful, I would be naive if I made this assumption.
It would also be naive not to take into consideration that scientists do now work in a silo; they receive grants and funding from corporations that are increasingly partisan. In the case of the recent AHA report on saturated fat, if you take a look grants you will see that two of the researchers received grants from the Canola Oil Council and multiple pharmaceutical drug companies such as Amarin, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Eisai, Glaxosmithkline, Merck, Pfizer, Regeneron/Sanofi, and Takeda.
Would the canola oil council benefit from research suggesting vegetable oils, such as canola oil, are healthier than coconut oil? Would pharmaceutical companies that make cholesterol lowering drugs benefit from research affirming the connection between cholesterol and heart disease?
Issue 3: Lack of education
How often is a nutrition science article in the media educating you as opposed to giving you stats from cherry-picked scientific research? In the case of the recent coconut oil headlines, did you read an article that actually educated you on the role of saturated fats, cholesterol and the basics of heart disease? Without knowledge about how the human body works, you will always be easily swayed and confused by research, and unable to read it with a discerning or critical eye.
So let’s make you critical thinkers starting right now.
Saturated Fat 101
There are three types of fats that exist in nature:
Includes Omega 3, Omega 6
The main difference between saturated and unsaturated is that from a biochemical perspective, saturated fats don’t have “double-bonds”, which allow a fat to be more fluid and flexible. However, this lack of flexibility in saturated fat serves a distinct purpose; to provide structure to our cells so that they don’t fall apart.
Our body requires all three types of fats. Saturated fat plays these key roles:
Basic requirement for our cells to function i.e. give structure to our cell membranes, without saturated fat all our cells would be floppy and flaccid
Bottom line: saturated fat is necessary for survival and overall health.
Cholesterol is produced by the liver and has the following important functions:
Production of all steroid hormones e.g. estrogen, testosterone
Production of Vitamin D to build strong bones and teeth
Production of bile, which is necessary to digest fat
A structural component of every single cell in the body; helps form a protective barrier
Chief healing agent in the body i.e. if there is damage to an artery, cholesterol arrives help with wound healing and to patch it up
At any given time, 75% of the cholesterol in your body is produced by your body, and the remaining 25% is from food. The human body is also able to self-regulate production of cholesterol in response to what you eat i.e. if you eat two egg yolks, your body will recognize that intake of dietary cholesterol and produce less to balance it out. (1)
Bottom line: cholesterol is necessary for survival and overall health. Also, stop avoiding egg yolks. (Egg white omelets are pretty terrible anyway).
Heart Disease 101
The old theory goes like this: “If you eat food high in saturated fat, this will raise your cholesterol levels and therefore increase risk of heart disease – end of story”
Here’s what’s true: saturated fat will increase your dietary cholesterol levels
Here’s where the misunderstanding exists: that higher dietary cholesterol intake will by default raise your risk of heart disease
Let’s break down that second part:
Cholesterol is a fat-soluble substance whereas blood is water-soluble. It cannot move through the blood on its own, so it needs to be transported in something called a lipoprotein. There is low-density lipoprotein (known as ‘bad’ cholesterol) and high-density lipoprotein (known as ‘good’ cholesterol).
I like this analogy that Chris Kresser uses to provide a good visual: imagine your bloodstream is a highway, the cars on the road are lipoproteins, and the passengers in the car are cholesterol particles. If there are too many cars on the road, traffic accidents are more likely to occur.
Basically, if there are too many LDL particles on the road more damage is likely to occur to the arterial walls. It is not the cholesterol inside the lipoproteins that are the issue.
Let’s take it one step further:
Research shows that it is the LDL particle size that matters. Large, fluffy LDL particles do not pose as much problem as small LDL particles. (2) (3)
Past research has also shown that saturated fat increases large fluffy LDL particles and also increases HDL. (4)
Bottom line: research shows saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol, but not the type that is harmful.
What’s more, small LDL particles become more troublesome when they are oxidized due to factors such as:
a high sugar diet
lack of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables
a sedentary lifestyle
So, Is Coconut Oil Good For you? The current state of research
The AHA guidelines make it clear that saturated fat should only be 5-6% of the diet, that it is associated with a rise in cardiovascular risk, and that you can lower your risk by swapping it with unsaturated fats. However, it is important to keep in mind that the AHA research does not cite research that links coconut oil to heart disease, but simply saturated fat to increasing LDL cholesterol.
In contrast, enough conflicting research exists on the other end of the spectrum that does not link saturated fat to cardiovascular disease. Below are just a few examples:
Where do we go from here?
It was just last year that the front cover of Time magazine declared saturated fat and butter did not raise the risk of heart disease. And this year the opposite seems to be true. I won’t be surprised if this debate continues over the years, and the confusion gets worse. There is already enough conflicting research on the topic.
My advice is this:
When it comes to saturated fat, remember to apply ‘big picture’ logic. Adding more coconut oil to your diet does not equate to ‘being healthier’. In certain situations you probably don’t want to increase saturated fat intake. For example, if you:
Haven’t cut back on sugar and refined carbs, which promotes oxidation of cholesterol
Aren’t eating enough fibre which helps dampen inflammation
Barely exercise and are likely overeating on a daily basis
Have genetically very high cholesterol such as familial hypercholesterolemia
Most of all, do not obsess over individual nutrients or else you will be left at the mercy of media, press releases and marketers telling you what to eat. Apply logic and understand that not everything, especially food, is black or white.
Simply enjoy a balance of all types of real, whole food in moderation and eat food with enjoyment and in context of the bigger picture of a healthy lifestyle that involves movement, sleep, plenty of vegetables and positive relationships.