Last week, a flurry of news reports were released, discussing research from the American Heart Association that discusses whether or not we can consider coconut oil a “healthful” food.
From Huffington Post:
An AHA survey found that 72 percent of Americans considered coconut oil a health food. But coconut oil, it turns out, is shockingly high in saturated fats. And saturated fat ― even though some elements of its effects are up for debate ― isn’t good for you no matter how you slice it.
The AHA reviewed existing data on saturated fats and found that in seven out of eight studies, coconut oil actually increased LDL cholesterol ― the bad cholesterol ― which is a cause of cardiovascular disease. The findings were so clear that Frank Sacks, the report’s lead author, told USA Today, “You can put it on your body, but don’t put it in your body.” [source]
So, as I have witnessed a partial explosion of frustration and confusion and annoyance and, frankly, shade across social media with regard to this research, it’s clear to me that we need to have a quick check in with the facts about saturated fats and the human body:
1) Saturated fats, when consumed, can and do become triglycerides in the blood stream.
2) Triglycerides, when consumed in abundance, do ultimately become the kind of “stuff” (also known as plaque) that sticks to the insides of your arteries, thereby forcing your heart to work harder to pump blood throughout your body. This is what heart disease is—an inability, on the part of your heart, to make sure your body gets the appropriate levels of oxygen, by pumping hard to deliver blood from your brain to your toes and all points in between. A heart that fails to do this can become enlarged; a heart that fails to make sure it’s delivering ample supplies or oxygen everywhere is a condition known as “heart failure;” a heart that has to work this hard to do its job can eventually experience a stroke.
So, yes, it’s right to sound the alarm, here. It’s not quite, as we are so used to hearing nowadays, “fake news.”
3) However—and this is where I think it’s important for people to pay close attention—saturated fats aren’t the only source for this particular problem, for that matter.
As I blogged a few years ago, in What Causes Heart Disease? Part 2, I quoted the following passage from a National Geographic Magazine article discussing—yep, you guessed it—sugar:
[…] fat makes up a smaller portion of the American diet than it did 20 years ago. Yet the portion of America that is obese has only grown larger. The primary reason, says Johnson, along with other experts, is sugar, and in particular fructose. Sucrose, or table sugar, is composed of equal amounts of glucose and fructose, the latter being the kind of sugar you find naturally in fruit. It’s also what gives table sugar its yummy sweetness. (High-fructose corn syrup, or HFCS, is also a mix of fructose and glucose—about 55 percent and 45 percent in soft drinks. The impact on health of sucrose and HFCS appears to be similar.) Johnson explained to me that although glucose is metabolized by cells all through your body, fructose is processed primarily in the liver. If you eat too much in quickly digested forms like soft drinks and candy, your liver breaks down the fructose and produces fats called triglycerides.
Some of these fats stay in the liver, which over long exposure can turn fatty and dysfunctional. But a lot of the triglycerides are pushed out into the blood too. Over time, blood pressure goes up, and tissues become progressively more resistant to insulin. The pancreas responds by pouring out more insulin, trying to keep things in check. Eventually a condition known as metabolic syndrome kicks in, characterized by obesity, especially around the waist; high blood pressure; and other metabolic changes that, if not checked, can lead to type 2 diabetes, with a heightened danger of heart attack thrown in for good measure. [source]
Unfortunately, because of the way the American diet is currently set up, you are infinitely more likely to find yourself experiencing an increase in triglycerides in your blood due to…..your body processing the ton of carbs in your system. Think about it—the average American’s diet, because so much of our food system consists of carbs/protein stuffed with carbs as filler (think ground meat coated with ground up oatmeal to make it thicker and more filling)/wrapped in carbs, is easily 60-75% pure carbs. And, because it’s so unfulfilling, people are eating far more calories than they otherwise should, which is largely to blame for the vast amounts of triglycerides in the blood—so much so, that we do experience the swelling and hardening of the arteries that results in heart disease.
This matters, because there are endless cultures across the globe who have coconut flesh and oil as a part of their daily diet without the high instances of heart disease that we experience here. Why? Because there’s more contributing to it than merely oil.
What am I getting at?
a) For starters, it’s hard to say for sure that the research from which the AHA drew its conclusions isolated coconut oil in a reliable way. Certain kinds of studies—for example the kinds where research subjects report their own caloric intake—are notoriously inaccurate.
Not only that, but it’s worth pointing out that none of the studies had anything to do with coconut oil. Can’t help but wonder if coconut oil was used to promote this research because the organization knew it’d garner attention.
As pointed out in Salon, “The publication is a meta-analysis of four different studies. The authors gathered the data of all four different studies and then analyzed them together. None of the four studies have jack squat to do with coconut oil.”
Of the countless studies done to understand the impact of saturated fats, the organization chose four that… all drew the same conclusion… and then reported their findings like they uncovered something new… somehow managing to avoid all the other studies that either refuted or added nuance to understanding coconut oil?
b) Secondly, it’s hard to say whether or not this kind of reporting—”fat is bad!”—is intended to be as similar to the decades of “fat is bad!” research we’ve gotten since the 80s, which resulted in us being on this crazy carb-heavy diet to begin with… but we’ve been here before. And it’s been debunked before:
One of the lead researchers in this field, Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “The country’s big low-fat message backfired. The overemphasis on reducing fat caused the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar in our diets to soar. That shift may be linked to the biggest health problems in America today.”
In 2001, Dr. Hu, writing in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition, noted, “It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health problems.” Or, as Michael Pollan pithily puts it in his In Defense of Food, “The amount of saturated fat in the diet may have little if any bearing on the risk of heart disease, and the evidence that increasing polyunsaturated fats in the diet will reduce risk is slim to nil.”
In other words, we’re kind of focused on the wrong thing. And, when you look at the countless other cultures who make coconut oil/milk/flesh a part of their regular diet and the lack of disease they experience (if you use my link to check out that book—the current book of the month—then I get a few pennies from the purchase!), you have to ask yourself: maybe it’s something else that’s causing the problems we have here?
In contrast to the sugars and other carb-heavy foods we consume, there are actual benefits to consuming coconut oil, regardless of the fears of it doing what you could basically expect any fat to do.
c) It is the responsibility of the AHA, from my estimation, to find ways to help the public where it stands. And where the public stands right now, too many people are eating diets high in carbs and fat, low on protein and fiber, and it’s resulting in the increase in cholesterol and heart disease. Cutting out saturated fats is a great way to help reduce those instances, considering how 1) the average American is getting their saturated fats from processed foods they should also cut out and 2) the average American is also getting a relatively large dose of sugar with their saturated fats, a dose they would also do well to get rid of.
Should you still eat coconut oil? That depends on what you and you doctor think. For some people, the risk might be too high. For others, it’s going to be a delicious addition to your meals.
I still intend to use mine like I always did: always in my hair, always on my skin, occasionally in my food.