The American Heart Association released a report last month that is causing quite a stir in both the health media and the professional healthcare community. The report warns against the consumption of saturated fats, including coconut oil which until now has been almost universally praised for its health benefits. The report claims that intake of any type of saturated fat increases the risk for cardiovascular disease and suggests using polyunsaturated vegetable oils, such as olive, soy or corn oil, instead (1).

The media quickly grabbed hold of this message and has been running all sorts of articles regarding the supposed scandalous demise of this popular ingredient, however, as nutrition experts and trained health professionals we’d like to urge you not to throw out your jar of coconut oil just yet, and here’s why:

  • First of all, the link between saturated fat, elevated cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease is controversial and little has actually been proven. Even the Academy of Dietetics supports taking the emphasis off of saturated fat as a nutrient of concern for cardiovascular risk due to this lack of evidence (2). Additionally, coconut oil (and other saturated fats) increase both LDL (also know as “bad”) cholesterol and HDL (the “good”) cholesterol and when looking at cholesterol levels and health it’s really the ratio of these two types that is most important, rather than simply the individual level of each (3).
  • Part of why this ratio is so important is that a lower ratio of LDL to HDL helps reduce inflammation, a proven risk factor for cardiovascular disease (3). Rather than focusing on isolated cholesterol counts and demonizing single nutrients, aiming to reduce inflammation with a balanced, whole foods diet low in processed carbohydrates and sugars is a more effective way to decrease cardiovascular risk. A recent study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, argues for this approach with compelling scientific evidence (4).
  • While we’re talking about inflammation, let’s also address the alternative oils suggested in the AHA report. Vegetable oils, especially corn and soy oil, are highly processed and incredibly inflammatory due to their high omega 6 content. In fact, another study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine links these oils to increased cardiovascular risk when used to replace saturated fats (3).
    Another important thing to note about the AHA report—which media articles are skipping over—is that they are not recommending complete avoidance of saturated fats but that they should be limited to 30 grams per day for men and 20 grams per day for women. This equates to approximately 2 tablespoons of coconut oil for men and 1.33 tablespoons for women—both of which are reasonable daily servings (3).
  • This is a perfect example of the need for personalized nutrition. Depending on a number of factors, including genetic makeup, saturated fat is going to affect everyone’s cholesterol levels differently. While some people may be able consume large amounts of saturated fats which no major changes to cholesterol or CVD risk, others may be more sensitive and need to consume with more moderation. This is where your doctor and nutritionist can help determine what the right balance is for you.
    Let’s also remember that when it comes to healthy foods, quality is just as important as quantity, if not more so. Cold-pressed coconut oil, grass-fed meats and grass-fed butter are all quality sources of saturated fat that can have a place in moderation as part of a balanced, whole foods diet, because of their anti-inflammatory properties.

Last but not least, let’s take a moment to remember all the amazing health benefits of coconut oil!

  • Improved neurological health – your brain cells are made up of 25% cholesterol so ensuring access to quality sources is essential and can even help treat Alzheimer’s, seizures and depression.
  • Healthy metabolism – coconut oil is partially made up of medium chain triglycerides which are easier for your body to absorb and break down and can help boost metabolism and promote a healthy weight.
  • Hormone regulation – healthy fats from whole foods are essential for hormone production, which are your body’s messengers to keep your systems functioning optimally.

We encourage you to continue to use coconut oil in moderation as part of your whole foods diet and if you have concerns about what it means for own individual heart health or would like more information about how to follow an anti-inflammatory diet, please call to make an appointment with one of our nutritionists!

By Flannery N., Bastyr University student intern

References:
Sacks F, Lichtenstein A, Wu J, et al. Dietary fats and cardiovascular disease: A presidential advisory from the American Heart Association. AHA Journal. 2017; 135(25). Accessed July 1, 2017. DOI:10.1161/CIR.0000000000000510

Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Commends Strong Evidence-Based Dietary Guidelines Report. Eat Right Pro. 2015. Accessed July 01, 2017. http://www.eatrightpro.org/resource/media/press-releases/public-policy/academy-commends-strong-dietary-guidelines-report

Is coconut oil healthy? (The American Heart Association doesn’t think so.) Dr. Axe – Food is Medicine. Accessed July 1, 2017. https://draxe.com/coconut-oil-healthy/

Malhotra A, Redberg RF, Meier P. Saturated fat does not clog the arteries: coronary heart disease is a chronic inflammatory condition, the risk of which can be effectively reduced from healthy lifestyle interventions. Br J Sports Med. 25 April 2017. DOI: 10.1136/bjsports-2016-097285

10 ways to balance hormones naturally. Dr. Axe – Food is Medicine. Accessed July, 1 2017. https://draxe.com/10-ways-balance-hormones-naturally/

May A. Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy. USA Today. 2017. Accessed July 01, 2017. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/06/16/coconut-oil-isnt-healthy-its-never-been-healthy/402719001/

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