Published on July 10, 2017

A blow to foodies who love coconut oilA blow to foodies who love coconut oil

Health food fans were shocked when the American Heart Association (AHA) recently released an advisory on saturated fats published in the journal Circulation. The advisory recommended replacing saturated fats with healthier fats, which could decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease as much as the cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins.

The stickler for many foodies came about half-way through an AHA news story on the advisory, in which coconut oil was singled out as being unhealthy because it is 82 percent saturated fat and increases LDL or “bad” cholesterol, in the same way as butter, palm oil and beef fat.

The advisory’s lead author, Frank Sacks, MD, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard School of Public Health, cited the oil as an example of trends that many people believe, despite the lack of scientific proof.

“I would encourage people to stay away from coconut oil,” said Amy Rose Sager, RD, a registered dietician with the Visiting Nurse Association of Cape Cod. “We want to take out these high sources of saturated fat.”

Evidence is lacking for coconut oil’s health claims, but not for saturated fats link to heart disease, said Sager, who has her own business specializing in digestive issues and plant-based nutrition, called Leap Into Wellness.

Some people latch onto a so-called “super food,” such as coconut oil, and then go overboard with it, Sager said, even using it in ways in which it was never intended, such as putting it in coffee, or eating it straight from the jar. Instead of focusing on one food, they should be looking at their entire diet, she said, and reducing intake of processed foods that can be high in sugar, fat and salt.

Indeed, alternative health pundits and product salesmen Mehmet Oz, MD, of Oprah Winfrey TV show fame, and Joseph Mercola, DO, promote coconut oil as the stuff of miracles, able to improve your metabolism, help you lose weight and lower cholesterol. A quick browse on the internet turns up claims that coconut oil fights cancer, improves your mood, counters Alzheimer’s disease and aids your thyroid.

Some Proof of Health Benefit

Research does exist showing a component of coconut oil may help with weight loss and raising metabolism, but you’d have to consume 10 tablespoons of the oil a day to get the benefit, which would be countered by the high dose of fat. According to the AHA, researcher Marie-Pierre St-Onge demonstrated that medium-chain triglicyerides (MCTs) are processed by the body differently than other fats, and that coconut oil contains more of these MCTs than most other oils – about 13-14 percent.

According to the Mayo Clinic, MCTs, such as lauric acid found in coconut oil, don’t seem to be stored in body fat as readily, or raise LDL levels in blood, in the way that long-chain fatty acids do. This, however, doesn’t change the fact that coconut oil is rich with saturated fat and calories. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 13.6 grams of fat and 117 calories.

In the AHA story on the coconut oil advisory, Dr. Sacks noted that the benefits of reducing saturated fats do not occur if those calories are replaced with junk food.

“You wouldn’t tell people, ‘Hey, reduce your sat fat and replace it with sugary soft drinks or donuts,’” he wrote.

The advisory recommended restricting saturated fats and replacing them with polyunsaturated vegetable oils, while simultaneously adopting a healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet or DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which feature lots of vegetables and polyunsaturated vegetable oils.

As reported in the HuffPost UK, another bit of news that was included at the end of the advisory may have been more newsworthy. The advisory states, “Finally, we note that a trial has never been conducted to test the effect on CHD (coronary heart disease) outcomes of a low fat diet that increases intake of healthful nutrient dense carbohydrates and fiber-rich foods, such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits and legumes, that are now recommended in dietary guidelines.”

Healthy and Not So Much

The AHA story identified these sources of saturated fats:

  • Butter
  • Lard
  • Beef tallow
  • Palm oil
  • Palm kernel oil
  • Coconut oil.

The first three, being animal fats, also contain cholesterol. Sager also advises limiting full-fat dairy products, bacon and baked goods containing palm oil.

The AHA recommended replacing saturated fats with these oils:

  • Canola
  • Corn
  • Soybean
  • Peanut
  • Safflower
  • Sunflower
  • Walnut
  • Olive oil, avocados and tree nuts contain monounsaturated fats and are also low in saturated fats.

Sager urged people to think in terms of teaspoons, rather than tablespoons, when using fats. While she espouses a plant-based diet, she said she does have clients who eat meat.

“Increase your plant foods; fiber is going to help reduce a lot of diseases,” Sager said.

In addition to a healthy diet, Sager said we all need to exercise.

“You’ve got to incorporate the whole thing,” she said.