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Death By Coconut Oil?

I’m sure you haven’t read anything recently about coconut oil (ha). 

Is it really that bad for you?  Spoiler alert- NO!! 

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way- let’s explore the research.


What is coconut oil?

It is 90% saturated fat, 7% monounsaturated fat, and the rest from trace fats.  65% of the saturated fats are from medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).  The high percentage of saturated fats are what’s being questioned in the recent American Heart Association paper.

One thing to keep in mind, there are many types of saturated fats.  They are grouped based on the length of the fat chain into either short chain, medium chain, long chain, or very long chain fatty acids.  The variable lengths all have different effects on the body.  Think omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids (one is significantly more anti-inflammatory than the other- even though they are both considered polyunsaturated fats). 

So, what does the research say?

  • In the AHA paper, there are three (yes 3) papers discussed on coconut oil- and one is a review paper.  That’s not a strong amount of supportive data for all the press it is getting.  The main paper was published in 1995.  That research is 22 years old!!  What?
  • Epidemiological risks show no effect between saturated fats and cardiovascular disease
  • Studies have shown that replacing saturated fats with polyunsaturated fats decreased cholesterol levels.  HOWEVER- this does not mean that saturated fats actually cause the elevation in cholesterol
  • Saturated fats (found in coconut oil) increase neuropeptide YY which suppresses your appetite after meals.  Meaning- you’re going to eat less and be full longer. 
  • Consumption of MCT oil can protect muscle mass in calorie restricted diets.  Consuming coconut oil as part of a weight loss plan, may help your body protect muscle mass and use fat mass more efficiently to promote weight loss.
  • Coconut oil may help diabetics become more sensitive to insulin.  This means that the cells would become more receptive to the presence of insulin after meals- leading to better regulation of blood sugars and decrease in complications from diabetes.
  • Coconut oil may also improve cognition and increase “processing speed.”  This is a fancy word for you’re going to be able to make critical decisions quicker- sounds good to me!
  • A large review study on saturated fats and serum cholesterol failed to find evidence linking high saturated fat intake and cholesterol levels.
  • Another study found the consumption of MCT actually lowered lipid numbers INCLUDING total cholesterol.
  • Finally, one study found that the inclusion of 30ml (270 calories) of coconut oil along with a lower calorie diet increased HDL by 8.2%, improved LDL: HDL ration whereas other oils (particularly soybean oil) increased total cholesterol and LDL.  In diabetics- adding MCT decreased total cholesterol and LDL (12% and 17%)

But, here’s the biggest kicker—It’s not scientifically proven that cholesterol increases your risk for heart disease (insert gasp here).  Over half of the people who are admitted to hospitals with a heart attack HAVE NORMAL CHOLESTEROL!!  What?!?!

When we are looking at cholesterol levels, it is important to determine the type of LDL (the “bad” cholesterol)- are they big fluffy particles (less dangerous) or small dense particles (more concerning).  At Whole Health Houston we like to run in-depth labs to determine the actual size of the LDL prior to making assumptions about the health risks.  

Also, did you know you would die without cholesterol?  It is important for the production of hormones, repairing your blood vessels, and actually aids in the digestion of fats!  Even if you never ate a single drop of cholesterol for the rest of your life- your body will still produce it naturally.  Do you think it’s important now? 

Cholesterol’s biggest job is to heal the damage done by inflammation.  It’s like yelling at the firefighter for putting out the fire.  Hello?  That’s dumb.  Let’s figure out what’s causing the fire in the first place (hint hint- excess sugar and carbohydrates are usually to blame).

Please please please, do not replace your coconut oil with canola oil, peanut oil, soybean oil, or other highly processed oils.  These are highly inflammatory oils, leading to more damage.


The big take away from all of this:

Coconut oil is not the villain.  Neither is cholesterol. 

You need to dig into why your cholesterol is elevated and treat the underlying cause. 

With elevated cholesterol, we recommend getting a full panel to determine the type and size of your cholesterol molecules.  We also recommend that you meet with our dietitian to discuss dietary interventions (which can include the addition of coconut oil)!    Each person is different in their needs, so a blanket statement is never the right choice (unless it is Arsenic is bad for you-  I’ll go along with that one).  All in all, there are a lot of things that are going to kill you before coconut oil. 


Citations: 

  1. DebMandal M, Mandal S Coconut (Cocos nucifera L.: Arecaceae): in health promotion and disease prevention . Asian Pac J Trop Med. (2011)
  2. Kromhout D, et al The confusion about dietary fatty acids recommendations for CHD prevention . Br J Nutr. (2011)
  3. Mozaffarian D, Micha R, Wallace S Effects on coronary heart disease of increasing polyunsaturated fat in place of saturated fat: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials . PLoS Med. (2010)
  4. Kien CL, et al Substituting dietary monounsaturated fat for saturated fat is associated with increased daily physical activity and resting energy expenditure and with changes in mood . Am J Clin Nutr. (2013)
  5. Karra E, Chandarana K, Batterham RL The role of peptide YY in appetite regulation and obesity . J Physiol. (2009)
  6. le Roux CW, Bloom SR Peptide YY, appetite and food intake . Proc Nutr Soc. (2005)
  7. Lomenick JP, et al Effects of meals high in carbohydrate, protein, and fat on ghrelin and peptide YY secretion in prepubertal children . J Clin Endocrinol Metab. (2009)
  8. Papamandjaris AA, et al Endogenous fat oxidation during medium chain versus long chain triglyceride feeding in healthy women . Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. (2000)
  9. Han JR, et al Effects of dietary medium-chain triglyceride on weight loss and insulin sensitivity in a group of moderately overweight free-living type 2 diabetic Chinese subjects . Metabolism. (2007)
  10. Karr JE, Grindstaff TR, Alexander JE Omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids and cognition in a college-aged population . Exp Clin Psychopharmacol. (2012)
  11. Siri-Tarino PW, et al Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease . Am J Clin Nutr. (2010)
  12. Kasai M, et al Effect of dietary medium- and long-chain triacylglycerols (MLCT) on accumulation of body fat in healthy humans . Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. (2003)
  13. Assunção ML, et al Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity . Lipids. (2009)
  14. Sachdeva, Amit et al. “Lipid Levels In Patients Hospitalized With Coronary Artery Disease: An Analysis Of 136,905 Hospitalizations In Get With The Guidelines”. Ahjonline.com. N.p., 2016.
  15. Scalfi L, et al.”Postprandial thermogenesis in lean and obese subjects after meals supplemented with medium-chain and long-chain triglycerides – PubMED- NCBI”. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2017.
  16. Seaton TB, et al. “Thermic Effect Of Medium-Chain And Long-Chain Triglycerides In Man. – Pubmed – NCBI”. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2017.
  17. Johnson, R. K. et al. “Dietary Sugars Intake And Cardiovascular Health: A Scientific Statement From The American Heart Association”. Circulation 120.11 (2009): 1011-1020.
  18. Jakobsen MU, et al. “Intake Of Carbohydrates Compared With Intake Of Saturated Fatty Acids And Risk Of Myocardial Infarction: Importance Of The Glycemic Index. – Pubmed – NCBI”. Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. N.p., 2016.

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