Coconut oil has been labeled as unhealthy as beef dripping and butter. The American Heart Association updated its advice on fats recently and it has made headlines.
Coconut oil has been celebrated as one that has lots of health benefits so what happened? Are you wondering if you should still consume it? Here is what I think about it.
First lets start by summarizing the AHA findings. The research was based mainly on randomized clinical trials and prospective observational studies on replacement of dietary saturated fat with polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat or carbohydrates. And the findings were the following:
- Lower risk of coronary hearth disease (CHD) when saturated fat was replaced with polyunsaturated fat. Polyunsaturated fat is contained in canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, and walnuts.
- No decrease in risk of CHD when saturated fat was replaced with carbohydrates. Here the carbohydrates used as replacement are refined carbohydrates such as sugar and refined grains. Replacement with whole grains and fiber-rich foods is associated with reduced CHD.
Let’s take a closer look at coconut oil.
Coconut oil is 82% saturated fat. It contains lauric acid. This fatty acid when replacing carbohydrates increases LDL (bad) cholesterol, which has been associated with increased risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Lauric acid also increases HDL (good) cholesterol, which is positive, but changes in HDL can no longer be linked to changes in CVD, and for this reason the report considers the effect on LDL (bad) cholesterol on its own. If considered together with its effect on HDL– coconut oil actually slightly reduces the ratio of LDL cholesterol to HDL cholesterol. The AHA advises against the use of coconut oil because of the isolated fact that it increases LDL cholesterol, which is a known cause of CVD. I do see the point of the advice and I am not completely disagreeing with it. But I think that there are other important factors that have been left out and that need to be considered in regard to coconut oil. Let’s see what they are.
Understanding fat quality
Fat is categorized in three categories – saturated, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat. But these categories are a small part of the overall picture when it comes to fat quality. If we want to understand fat quality better, we need to look more closely at certain aspects of fat, and the first place we need to look is at fat components called fatty acids.
Fatty acids are like chains consisting of links. These chains can be short, medium, or long, depending on the number of links they contain. Short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs) contain 2 to 5 links, where as medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) contain around 6 to 12 links. Our bodies need all three kinds of fatty acids to remain healthy.
Also, all saturated fat is not created equal. When a saturated fat is short-chain, it offers important health benefits that are lacking in the long-chain version.
About half of the saturated fat content in coconut oil is lauric acid – a MCFA. MCFAs have been used for a long time to help people who have difficulties absorbing fat. They can be helpful because unlike longer-chain fats, they can be absorbed directly from the digestive tract and don’t have to follow the more complicated pathway of fat absorption, which involves the lymphatic system and liver. What does this mean? It means that MCFAs are sent directly to the liver, where they are immediately converted into energy rather than being stored as fat. They are known to stimulate the body’s metabolism and can actually help get rid of excess fat.
Should we continue consuming coconut oil?
We need to understand first and foremost that fat is an important part of our diet and it has many important functions in our body. But increased fat consumption has also been linked to disease.
There are two aspects that need to be considered:
- The total amount of fat in your diet (that is what percentage of your diet consists of fats and oils, both saturated and unsaturated fats).
- The types of fats consumed (long-chain and hydrogenated fats are worse for your heart health than monounsaturated fats and omega-3 fatty acids).
In regards to coconut oil I personally would not avoid it completely for the reasons mentioned above, but I would most certainly limit the quantities consumed (as with any oil!). Just like with everything, there needs to be balance and moderation. If we want to be healthy and have a strong heart I would also remind you that it is not only the fat we consume, our overall diet makes a difference too.
What to eat for a healthy heart and body
- Eating more fiber-rich food is a very important factor to a healthy heart, just as the types of fats we chose to consume.
- Focus on whole foods, vegetables, whole grains and legumes, and try to get your fat intake from whole sources, such as nuts, seeds; avocado and wild-caught fish for example.
- Sauté your vegetables in a veggie broth instead in oil and invest in a good pan.
- Limit your intake of packaged foods, hydrogenated fats, fried foods and animal fat and reduce the amount of total fats consumed to approximately 25% of total calories.
- Reduce the intake of long-chain saturated fats (contained in red meat and full fat dairy products) and increase the ratio of polyunsaturated fats to saturated fats by consuming more nuts and seeds.
- Increase the omega-3 rich foods, such as flaxseeds, walnuts, cold-water fish.
Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease, A presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association
Staying healthy with nutrition, Elson M. Haas, MD 21st– century edition