What you need to know about coconut oil

According to a recent survey, 72% of Americans classify coconut oil as a “healthy food.” But is that really true?

A 2017 American Heart Association panel reviewed the evidence on which fats in foods raise—and which lower—the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). The experts’ findings: “We conclude strongly that lowering intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of CVD.” Yet many people have heard that saturated fats are harmless.

Why saturated fat matters

Ignore headlines like “Butter is Back” and claims that saturated fat isn’t as bad as researchers once thought. Some of those headlines were triggered by studies with serious flaws.

“The evidence that saturated fat causes atherosclerosis and heart disease is compelling,” says Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and head of the heart association panel. “It’s consistent across randomized trials, large observational epidemiologic studies, and animal studies.”

That’s because saturated fat increases LDL—or low-density lipoprotein—cholesterol (also called “bad” cholesterol). “LDL cholesterol is a cause of heart disease,” Sacks explains. “It’s not a risk factor. It’s a direct, absolute cause.”

Several lines of evidence have nailed LDL as a culprit.

“We know that LDL is the main carrier of cholesterol in the blood, and it enters into the walls of major arteries and deposits cholesterol there,” says Sacks. “And that sets off a chronic inflammatory reaction, which helps lead plaque to build up in arteries.”

Are the saturated fats in coconut oil different?

Roughly 80 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated. Yet some people claim that coconut oil doesn’t raise LDL. Not true, says Sacks.

“The evidence is straightforward. Some of the short-chain saturated fatty acids in coconut oil don’t raise LDL cholesterol. But they don’t counteract the effects of the oil’s longer-chain fatty acids, which do increase LDL cholesterol. So coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol in the same way that, say, butter does.”

In a 2016 paper, researchers reviewed the evidence from seven small trials that compared coconut oil to monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils, like olive or soybean. They found that LDL cholesterol levels were higher when people ate coconut oil. The increase was statistically significant in six of the seven studies.

Granted, no large trials have tested coconut oil’s impact on heart disease. “In the absence of any 10,000-person study, we have to go on the best available evidence, which shows that coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol,” says Sacks.

Is this a call for avoiding all coconut oil in our diet? If you are using dairy, meat, cheese, already food sources high in saturated fat, using coconut oil would only be hastening your heart disease. However, if you are a vegan, or on a diet low in fat normally, using coconut oil sparingly should not be a problem.

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The above information was extracted from an article written by Caitlin Dow, August 27, 2018, Healthletter, published by Center for Science in the Public Interest, the nonprofit publisher of Nutrition Action Healthletter, 1220 L ST NW Suite 300, Washington, DC 20005. https://cspinet.org/tip/what-you-need-know-about-coconut-oil

Research referenced in the above article came from Circulation, Vol. 136, No. 3, June 15, 2017, Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory from the American Heart Association, Frank Sacks, and et al.

The concluding paragraph was written by Charles Cleveland, MPH, Health Education Resources, Inc.

Photo: Pixabay, https://pixabay.com/en/coconut-oil-on-wooden-spoon-2090580/

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