People ask me this question repeatedly, especially since the American Heart Association’s (AHA) June 2017 report on saturated fats came out and the headlines went a bit mental, saying coconut oil is bad for you.
Coconut oil has a bad reputation because it’s a saturated fat, and according to AHA all saturated fats are created equal and they all cause heart disease. It is worth mentioning that there are studies that dispute this, adding to the total confusion. (Please see the Reference list for all research used for this article, it’s enlightening, to say the least.)
The AHA is not completely condemning saturated fat but advising that men can have 30g and women 20g per day, which equals to 2tbs for men and 1.33tbsp for women.
In the other camp, we have people who swear by coconut oil and its properties. This is because the fat in coconut oil is made up of medium chain triglycerides, which have shown to help weight loss, control appetite, balance hormones and improve neurological factors.
The alternative to coconut oil and other saturated fats is often vegetable oils. Read my article on these villains HERE
Let’s first look at the controversy over coconut oil and heart disease
Coconut oil and cholesterol
Several studies have shown that Coconut oil raises HDL, the so-called ‘good’ cholesterol. Some studies, at this point, say that LDL, the ‘bad’ cholesterol, is elevated by coconut oil, others say it lowers LDL and more importantly VLDL (really bad cholesterol).
Obviously, more research is needed to determine the effect of coconut oil on LDL cholesterol, but at the end of the day, basing the coronary heart disease (CHD) risks on LDL is outdated. Firstly, the risk associated with CHD is mostly to do with the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL. If this is low it doesn’t matter that LDL is high as HDL will be high too. It gets more complicated than this because LDL is not so bad, the bad guy is really VLDL, which is a small version of LDL, and there is some talk that coconut oil increases the size of LDL making them benign. Watch this space as I will shed some light as soon as studies are out on this matter.
As mentioned above CHD risks are not only based on your lipid profile and the level of LDL/VLDL, but a multitude of factors, such as triglycerides, inflammation, diet, and lifestyle. In order for the VLDLs to do damage to the arteries, there has to be inflammation or damage to the arteries first. This damage happens due to lifestyle and nutrient deficiency, so if we focused on addressing that, we would not have to worry about cholesterol. A Diet high in refined carbohydrates and sugar is much more lethal to your health than any saturated fat. Studies have also pointed out that people who consume coconut oil have reduced inflammation and oxidative stress compared to people who consume other oils, a major component in preventing many diseases including CVD.
Coconut oil can help you lose weight;
In one study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, they fed MCTs to one group of people and olive oil to another group of people. Both groups were overweight.
The people who had consumed coconut oil lost more weight than the people who had consumed olive oil. The same has been shown in animal studies where mice were fat either coconut oil or other fat and the ones ingesting coconut oil always lost more weight. Odd, right? All fat contributes with the same amount of calories (9 calories), so in theory, it should be the same, but not all fat is created equal.
Coconut oil is made up of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are metabolised differently to other fats; for example, MCTs increase the body’s thermogenesis. Thermogenesis is basically how much energy the body uses to burn the food you eat. In addition to this, coconut oil has been shown to improve satiety and when you are full, you eat less. However, the main reason MCTs are able to prevent weight gain and encourage weight loss is that MCTs are easily metabolised and are mainly used as energy instead of being stored as fat.
Coconut oil has antiviral, antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, meaning it can help you kill off organisms that make you sick and strengthen your immune system.
Improve your gut flora
Due to its antibacterial properties mentioned above coconut oil can destroy bad bacteria, which can improve gut balance and eventually help heal a leaky gut.
Your spinal cord, brain, and nerves all need HDL cholesterol to function well and coconut oil increases HDL. Coconut oil can also provide ketones to the brain as a fuel source, this is why it has been speculated that coconut oil can improve neurological health in conditions such as Parkinson, Alzheimer’s and depression. One doctor tried it on her own husband and had great success. See her Ted talk here.
Coconut oil is high in polyphenols and exerts antioxidant properties, which we know are great for neurological health, cardiovascular health and generally anti-aging.
It has been shown that coconut oil can help balance the thyroid and adrenal glands. The thyroid gland is important to maintain a healthy metabolism and the adrenal glands help you cope with stress.
Stabilising blood sugar levels and prevent diabetes
Coconut oil can help balance blood sugar levels and improve the insulin secretion by the pancreas; thereby help reduce insulin resistance and diabetes
The Good Diet
Traditional populations in tropical areas have lived on coconut oil for thousands of years without getting heart disease or becoming obese.
They also lived on a diet rich in fish and vegetables, so thinking adding coconut oil to a traditional Western diet will solve any problems, would be wrong. Living on a diet rich in whole foods such as fish, grass-fed meat, white meat, eggs and a copious amount of vegetables and a very small amount of complex carbohydrates, you would absolutely be benefitting from having coconut oil as well as other saturated fats in your diet.
Extra Virgin is the best
The type of coconut oil is also important. I recommend unrefined extra virgin coconut oil. Avoid the refined oils as they have been heated past their melting point and possibly also bleached, while the cheapest coconut oils also have added partially-hydrogenated fats (bad stuff)
AHA and Cholesterol