By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
There’s been a lot of recent hype about coconut oil, with some people touting its health benefits, and others claiming that coconut oil is bad for you. The American Heart Association (AHA) is among the thumbs-down group, having advised people through a June 2017 publication to avoid eating coconut oil. Why? As a saturated fat, coconut oil is believed to raise low-density cholesterol (LDL), which has traditionally been seen as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease (CVD, or heart disease).
Here we go again… an oversimplified blanket recommendation based on a widespread misunderstanding about cholesterol. I’m of the school that coconut is good for you when consumed in moderation – here’s why:
Understanding Coconut Oil, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol
Unless you’re under 20 years old, you’ve likely had your cholesterol tested, and have probably been told that HDL is good and LDL is bad, and that you should avoid eating foods with saturated fat. What if I told you that this advice is “dinosaur medicine” and that saturated fats – especially those from plant sources like coconut – are not actually bad for you and LDL cholesterol is not always harmful…That what you’ve been told is a part of “the great cholesterol myth”?
See, from what I’ve discovered through decades of clinical cardiology experience and extensive research is that saturated fats and cholesterol aren’t the primary causes of heart disease. The real problem is inflammation. In The Great Cholesterol Myth, a book I co-authored with Dr. Johnny Bowden, we discuss this very issue, and explain the nuances of cholesterol that you really need to know.
Here’s a major one – the LDL number you get through standard blood tests is practically useless for gaging your CVD risk because it doesn’t specify which LDL subtype you have more of (you’d need a cholesterol particle size test for that). Some LDL is large and fluffy, while other LDL particles are smaller and more dense. It’s these smaller, denser particles that you have to watch out for because they oxidize more easily and can lead to CVD-causing inflammation.
So, to answer the million-dollar question you might be asking right now – “Does coconut oil elevate small-particle LDL levels?” – at the end of the day, I don’t see the evidence for that. In fact, coconut oil mostly raises HDL levels.
Various studies show mixed results about the effect of coconut consumption on triglyceride, total cholesterol, and LDL numbers – some indicate lower triglycerides, total cholesterol, and LDL (no subtypes specified), while others show increased levels of some or all of these markers. Much of the research I saw showed that coconut oil raised blood lipid levels less than butter did, but more than polyunsaturated fats like safflower, corn or canola oil did.
So, ultimately many researchers recommended the polyunsaturated as being better than coconut oil for cardiovascular health. But, what virtually all the studies failed to look at were biomarkers of inflammation, and as mentioned earlier, inflammation is a much greater cardiovascular risk factor than cholesterol (one study did look at inflammatory markers, and did not find that coconut oil had any effect on them). And since excess consumption of polyusaturated fats can lead to inflammation, I don’t recommend oils like canola and safflower for heart disease prevention.
Bottom line with coconut oil, saturated fat and cholesterol, is that you want to prevent inflammation, which means avoiding inflammatory foods, and eating saturated fats in moderation as a part of a healthy, anti-inflammatory diet like my PAMM diet. More about PAMM later, my friends…
There’s No Shortage of Coconut Health Benefits
Even though it’s just recently appeared on our Western radar, coconut oil has been a staple ingredient in many Southeast Asian and Polynesian households for generations. We, in the West know coconut oil best for it’s high saturated fat content, and those of us in the health food world understand that coconut oil fat consists of medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs, which are easier to digest and don’t get stored as fat.
Coconut’s health benefits raise its status far above other sources of saturated fat, like steak, butter and cheese (animals, like us, store toxins in their fat). With anti-fungal and antimicrobial properties, coconut oil can be helpful for treating infections of the urinary tract, as well as candida and other yeast infections. Some people also use it in the name of gum and tooth health by practicing a technique called oil pulling.
And, if you’ve ever wanted to try coconut oil on your face or hair, you should act on that instinct! A fantastic moisturizer for skin, coconut oil also can bring youthful shine and bounce back to hair. I will admit, the scent can be a bit powerful. So, if the thought of smelling like coconut deters you, you can just reap coconut’s rewards from the inside out.
Here’s another great benefit, one that mature folks like me will surely love. While it’s true that the brain and body begin to show wear-and-tear as we age, coconut oil is helpful at fighting back against the ravages of time. Since MCTs don’t need to be broken down, they’re readily available for the body and can travel to the brain with ease. They also put less stress on the liver and offer antioxidant properties, both of which help make the aging process more of a sleigh ride.
To boot, anecdotal evidence also suggests that coconut oil may even help with Alzheimer’s. With this and other coconut health benefits in mind, I clearly disagree with the AHA’s advisement that people should avoid eating coconut oil.
CVD and the Healing Effect of the Mediterranean Diet
One position the AHA and I have in common is that eating a Mediterranean diet is a way to reduce cardiovascular disease risk. As mentioned earlier, my particular diet of choice is PAMM, which stands for “Pan-Asian Modified Mediterranean”. Low in high-glycemic sugary foods and unhealthy fats, PAMM is high in vegetables, fruits, legumes, and healthy fats. Hence, it’s highly anti-inflammatory, which makes it an ideal diet for fending off heart disease and other degenerative aging issues.
I also consider PAMM to be healthy from a vibrational energy perspective. Featuring lots of fruits, vegetables, seaweed and healthy fats like those found in olive oil, nuts, seeds, avocados, and coconut, PAMM is alive with the energy of nature. I believe that a diet full of healthy vibrational energy is one of the keys to a long and healthy life.
Coconut Oil vs. Olive Oil
Between coconut oil and olive oil, which one is best? It may be my Italian heritage speaking, but I have always preferred olive oil. And as a physician who does his research, I know how much of a rock star olive oil can be. It’s not only great for the heart, but protects the body from diabetes and high blood pressure. Olive oil also helps reduce the risk of certain cancers and cognitive decline.
Both coconut oil and olive oil boast their fair share of health-promoting qualities, and they certainly stand out as pantry staples. As a monounsaturated fat that has graced tables and medicine cabinets since the earliest recorded histories, though, olive oil’s certainly got an edge over coconut oil. Having read tons of studies on olive oil – including the Predimed study, through which eating at least 4 Tbsp of olive oil a day was linked to better protection against heart disease, stroke and diabetes – I ultimately have to side with olive oil as the healthy fat of choice.
Of course, the higher smoke point of coconut oil makes it a much better choice when cooking or baking at high temperatures. The takeaway? Coconut oil has many health benefits that can help you at any age – just don’t eat it instead of olive oil and be sure to practice moderation. Here’s to your health!
American Heart Association (AHA). Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation. June 15, 2017
Eyres L. Coconut oil consumption and cardiovascular risk factors in humans. Nutr Rev. 2016 Apr; 74(4): 267–280.
Feranil AB, et al. Coconut oil predicts a beneficial lipid profile in pre-menopausal women in the Philippines. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2011; 20(2): 190–195.
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