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Dr. Axe Weighs in on Coconut Oil Controversy: How the AHA Got it Wrong
Perhaps the most startling part of the AHA recommendations is that the experts recommend eating more corn and soy oil. Yikes. More than 90 percent of these crops are genetically modified.
[Food is Medicine] Is coconut oil healthy? You may feel more confused than ever on the subject, thanks to the American Heart Association’s (AHA) June 2017 report on saturated fats. (Photo Credit: Dr. Josh Axe/ Food is Medicine)
The advisory report from the AHA looks at dietary fats and cardiovascular disease. But the association’s stark warning on coconut oil is what really came as a shock to the public. Here’s just a sampling of headlines since the report came out: “Coconut oil isn’t as good for you as you might think.” And, “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy.” Then there was this one: Coconut oil “as unhealthy as beef fat and butter.”
It’s really not that simple, and I will go into detail in this article to highlight where the AHA got it wrong and how removing dietary coconut oil could be a major health mistake for some.
I’ve been touting coconut oil benefits for years, particularly when it comes to improving brain health. And while there is some truth in the AHA report (we’ll get to that later), my biggest issue is this: The AHA authors are oversimplifying the situation. Plus, what they’re telling you to replace coconut oil with is dead wrong, in my opinion. Let’s take a deeper dive…
Is Coconut Oil Healthy? Here’s What You Need to Know
Many people will be alarmed by this coconut oil news from the American Heart Association, but it’s important to remember its guidelines aren’t telling people to consume zero saturated fat to reduce heart disease risk. AHA is recommending the average man limits daily saturated fat intake to 30 grams per day; 20 grams for women. That’s about the equivalent of 2 tablespoons of coconut oil for men and 1.33 tablespoons for women. Most people aren’t going to surpass this in a day unless they are on a high fat Paleo diet or ketogenic diet. (And some people do quite well on high-fat diets, granted they are consuming healthy fats.) (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
The biggest positive from the report was the organization’s recommendation to consume a Mediterranean diet with foods rich in healthy fatty acids, such as wild fish, olives, avocado, nuts and seeds. But let’s get back to the coconut oil…
The Cholesterol Issue
Is coconut oil healthy? The AHA advises against the use of coconut oil because it increases LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol and “has no known offsetting favorable effects.” (Their words, not mine.)
In fact, Brazilian researchers found incorporating extra-virgin coconut oil into the diet provides a healthy HDL cholesterol bump. It even helps heart disease patients lose excess body mass and whittle down their waistlines, two factors that can protect your heart. (3)
Besides the fact that measuring cholesterol may not be the best way to indicate heart disease, there’s another mega takeaway I want you to understand. The reason the American Heart Association is advising against coconut oil is because the organization says LDL cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease. But a study of more than 12,000 people found low cholesterol — not high —actually increased a person’s risk of dying early. (4)
Could it be we’re all too hyper-focused on cholesterol, when we really should focus on reducing inflammation, which is the root cause of heart disease. (5, 6, 7)
In order to improve heart health, the focus must shift from high cholesterol as the biggest risk factor for heart disease and instead focus on reducing inflammation and oxidation via diet. It’s all about getting to the root cause of disease. Your liver starts to produce cholesterol as your body’s repair substance. This happens because inflammation and oxidation is taking place in your arteries. Imagine your arteries as pipes in your home. If your pipe is damaged and springs a leak, you need to go and patch and repair the area. The problem isn’t high cholesterol. That’s merely the cause of an inflammatory lifestyle.
And, if you truly want to know what your cholesterol numbers should be in regard to heart disease risk, you need to evaluate your cholesterol ratios, not the total number. What was apparent as I read through the AHA analysis is that many of the studies they pulled didn’t take into consideration HDL cholesterol levels or the ratios.
Here’s an easier explanation from Harvard Medical: “The ratio of total cholesterol-to-HDL is important; the smaller the number the better. For example, someone with a total cholesterol of 200 and an HDL of 60 would have a ratio of 3.3 (200 ÷ 60 = 3.3). If that person’s HDL was low — let’s say 35 —the total cholesterol-to-HDL ratio would be higher: 5.7.” (8)
The Oil Replacement Issue
Perhaps the most startling part of the AHA recommendations is that the experts recommend eating more corn and soy oil. Yikes. More than 90 percent of these crops are genetically modified. And Norwegian researchers even found U.S. soy contains “extreme” levels of glyphosate, the main ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. (Yes, it’s actually inside the food. You can’t wash it off.)
But here’s the biggest red flag: A 2016 review study published in the British Medical Journal looked at what happens when people take saturated fats out of the diet and replace with vegetable oil fats rich in linoleic acid. Instead of consuming saturated fats, people were eating more corn oil and margarine rich in polyunsaturated fats. Turns out, replacing saturated fat with corn oil and similar oils actually increased a person’s risk of coronary heart disease and death from all causes. (9)
Corn, soy and other vegetables oils are high in omega 6 fatty acids. And while we do need some omega 6 fats, the standard American diet is far too heavy on omega 6 fats and too light on omega 3s. Corn oil’s omega 6-to-omega-3 ratio is 49:1. There’s also evidence that an omega 6-heavy diet can increase the risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women and prostate cancer in men. (10)
Here are some other key points to ponder when you’re trying to decide, “Is coconut oil healthy:”
- The American Heart Association has issued questionable dietary guidelines in the past, too. These include eating low-fat processed foods (these are often loaded with sugar) and opting for margarine instead of butter. (AHA has since come around on sugar.)
- We’ve seen examples of dietary blanket statements in the past, often with disastrous effects. Remember when researchers said all red meat was bad, failing to differentiate between factory farmed meat and grass-fed? In the 80s, all fat was labeled as bad. That transformed into all fat is bad except omega-3 fats. Now, we’re hearing we just need to be wary of saturated fat. What’s it going to be next week?
- The truth about saturated fat? We need it. At least 50 percent of our cell membranes are made of saturated fatty acids. This does everything from enhancing the immune system to protecting the liver from toxins.
- Cholesterol’s role in human health is complicated. You actually need it for optimal brain health. And more and more science is debunking the idea that certain high-cholesterol foods are bad for us. For instance, a 2017 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study found eggs and dietary cholesterol don’t really cause dementia.
- Some people believe the 2017 report is actually a step up from older American Heart Association recommendations. Here, although researchers don’t recommend coconut oil, they don’t say to completely avoid it, either.
- A powerful way to reduce your risk of heart disease includes limiting your refined carbohydrates and sugar. These unhealthy carbs promote lower HDL cholesterol levels, insulin resistance, small LDL particles and high triglycerides. (11)
- And to be clear, the way I read the study, the AHA may be experiencing a small shift. They’re still saying 2 tablespoons of coconut oil or saturated fat or less isn’t necessarily terrible for some people.
Is Coconut Oil Healthy? Check Out These Perks
There is proof that increasing your intake of the right type of saturated fats (coconut oil, cacao, grass-fed meat, and ghee) may boost your body’s HDL cholesterol production. Your brain, spinal cord and nerves are made up of 25 percent cholesterol, which is, at least in part, why consuming more may help improve neurological health. For those who need neurological support, coconut oil could be just what the doctor ordered. In fact, saturated fat may help those with Alzheimer’s disease, seizures and depression. (12, 13, 14)
Weight Loss via Ketogenic Diet
More and more studies suggest benefits of a ketogenic, high-fat, low-carb diet. This is especially true when it comes to weight loss, type 2 diabetes and memory. I don’t recommend people stay in a state of ketosis long-term, but doing a 30-to-90 day period of keto (and then moving in and out of ketosis as our ancestors did) can provide improvements in weight, PCOS symptoms, type 2 diabetes, memory and more. (15, 16, 17, 18)
Best Ways to Reduce Heart Disease Risk Using Food
Different people respond differently to foods. That’s why it’s really hard to make blanket nutrition statements. Some people tolerate coconut oil well and see great improvements in hormone profiles, mood, memory and weight. For others, coconut oil may not be the answer. This AHA report is another reminder that we need to push for personalized nutrition and medicine. What works for one person may not work for another.
In general, though, here are more foods to work into your diet for better heart health:
Turmeric, garlic, rosemary, cayenne and cinnamon have all been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease.
It’s well established in Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic medicine that bitter green vegetables promote heart health. These include arugula, broccoli rabe, dandelion greens, dill and watercress.
Omega-3 Rich Foods
Wild caught fish high in EPA and DHA, such as mackerel, salmon, sardines and tuna, have tremendous anti-inflammatory benefits, as do nuts. ALA-rich chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts are also rich in omega-3s.
Final Thoughts on “Is Coconut Oil Healthy?”
- In general, the recommendations in the American Heart Association’s report, “Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association,” are nearsighted.
- The AHA is looking only at heart health and basing heart health on total cholesterol levels. This isn’t necessarily the most accurate way to determine heart health.
- Some people may do well on the diet AHA suggests if they actually replace saturated fat with wild fish, olives, avocado, seeds and ancient grains that have been sprouted. Unfortunately, many people may instead turn to grains like wheat bread and vegetables oils like corn and GMO canola instead.
- It’s important to remember that everyone is different. This is why we will see further evidence of the importance of personalized medicine in the future.
- To protect your heart today, use more herbs in your cooking, eat more bitter greens and be sure to get healthy, omega-3 fatty acids from grass-fed meats and fish.
- Is coconut oil healthy? The truth is saturated fats from coconut oil, cacao, ghee and grass-fed sources likely aren’t the culprits when it comes to heart disease. Hydrogenated oil, refined grains, sugar and processed foods are the biggest villains.
Food is Medicine