Pure coconut oil – heart healthy or heart harmful?
In a recent blog post the amazing Rich Roll wrote about the potential for coconut oil to clog the arteries because as a saturated fat it raises LDL (bad cholesterol) levels.
He includes a video in the post from the also wonderful Dr. Michael Greger of NutritionFacts which reviews some primary research on coconut oil and cholesterol.
Apparently, coconut oil is a NOT a good guy and should be used sparingly. But is that the whole story and, importantly did the studies cited use unadulterated, pure coconut oil?
Is the evidence that pure coconut oil is bad for you valid?
Now I’m a fan of the pure stuff (raw virgin coconut oil) and the view from Roll and Gregor is not good news, as far as I’m concerned. It’s widely accepted, although the paleo masses (or Adkins’ fans for that matter) may argue otherwise, that saturated fats raise bad cholesterol (LDL) thereby increasing the risk of heart disease.
That’s not the whole ‘fats’ story but a great article from the Harvard School of Public Health will fill in the blanks for interested readers.
Despite coconut oil being a saturated fat I’m not about to chuck my raw organic virgin coconut oil in the bin on the back of Dr. Gregor’s video nor Rich Roll’s post, oh no.
I recently become an advocate of pure coconut oil after reading a great book extolling the virtues of the wonderful stuff. In Coconut Cures by Bruce Fife there’s an entire chapter dedicated to reviewing the evidence suggesting that coconut oil is as bad as saturated fats from animals.
This chapter shows that pure coconut oil is not bad for you because the studies saying so are critically flawed.
Hydrogenated or pure coconut oil
The problem is the type of coconut oil used in the studies dissing coconut oil tends to be hydrogenated, which is always bad for health.
Clearly, this hydrogenated stuff is not good and will skew the findings in the studies. This stuff should be avoided as it is anything but pure coconut oil! Indeed, there’s another method used to extract oil from coconuts which also produces an inferior product.
We really ought to go for organic raw virgin coconut oil which is pure, unadulterated, healthful loveliness .
In the chapter debunking coconut research Fife explains that certain studies indicate that relative to certain cholesterol lowering vegetable oils, coconut oil does raise bad cholesterol BUT as he points out that is rather like saying a 6ft 3 bloke is short relative to a team of basketball players!
He says the evidence shows that pure coconut oil (pressed virgin coconut oil) has a rather benign effect on bad cholesterol but it does raise good cholesterol (HDL) which results in an improved ratio between the two. That’s good news for pure coconut oil consumers!
Incidentally, one study cited in the video showed that pure coconut oil increases bad cholesterol less than butter while another supports the benign effect of pure coconut oil on cholesterol as both HDL and LDL were raised rendering the effect neutral, neither harmful or beneficial. Gregor does point out that unlike saturated animal fats, coconut oil does NOT cause the spike (rapid rise) of inflammatory markers immediately after consumption.
That’s not surprising as pure coocnut oil is said to have anti-inflammatory effects!
The results of that inflammation study indicated that saturated animal fats incur a large inflammatory response after ingestion.
Surprisingly, the fats used in the study were, coconut, flax and cod liver oil! So this inflammatory response is seen even in cod liver oil, which is espoused as being extremely healthy! Wow! But I digress…
Medium-chain Triglycerids (MCTs)
Importantly, the saturated fat in coconut oil is predominantly medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are processed differently in the body than other saturated fats and so have a different effect.
These MCTs are are converted into MCFAs (medium-chain fatty acids) and are used as fuel and NOT packaged into lipoproteins (VLDL and LDL cholesterol) or circulated in the bloodstream to the same degree as other fats. This is why they don’t have the same effect on cholesterol measures as animal fats.
But don’t take his word for it how about this quote from page 95
Humans tend to eat mixtures of fats, yet very rarely have dietary lipids been examined as mixtures. Early animal experiments are of limited value because these animals developed essential fatty acid deficiency. this would have been avoided by feeding mixtures of fats, as the interaction of different fatty acids might not be simply additive. In the few trials of coconut oil as part of a mixed fat diet, a hypercholesterolemic response was not observed… Coconut oil has historically been misrepresented, and the scientific community, therefore, must be educated on its true metabolic process and effect on atherogenesis.
Research team at Harvard Medical School, Boston MA
That is, lipid (fats) researchers studying the effect of coconut oil as a part of a natural diet say that coconut oil does NOT raise cholesterol in a harmful way. In his book, Fife cites more of this sort of informed opinion as well as tons of testimonials agreeing with this sentiment.
So is raw virgin coconut oil good for your health?
Well if we look to populations that consume a lot of coconuts as a part of their diet and have done so for a long time we might get a clue. Although Dr. Greger throws scorn on such a study in his video there are more studies presented in Fife’s book.
A compelling piece of evidence compares cardiovascular disease deaths across the world. This information is taken from two studies and shows that the population of the coconut eating Philippines has a death rate per 100k population from CV disease of 120 whereas England and Wales has 702, Scotland 906, Japan 548, USA 814 and Russia 1802.
While there are drawbacks to population studies, I usually like them because they are based on a lot of data taken from non-experimental situations, i.e. everyday life. They cannot indicate causation but they are insightful.
Incidentally, in the Bicol region of the Philippines the people have the highest intake of fat from coconut in their diet (62.5%) and the lowest incidence of heart disease, as cited in Fife’s book.
Pure coconut oil doesn’t cause heart disease then!
For me, no. While I cannot be certain that the studies cited by Dr. Greger use the inferior coconut oil I think there’s sufficient evidence supporting the human use of pure coconut oil, as many societies have done for centuries.
I will continue to eat plenty, put it on my skin, on minor wounds, in my beard etc. I’m a fan but decide for yourself. If convinced make sure you go for the good stuff. Organic, raw, virgin coconut oil is unadulterated, pure coconut oil and the best!