Behind the headlines: The Evidence-Based Truth About Coconut Oil
You’ve likely heard the “bad news” about everyone’s favorite kitchen staple / body moisturizer / general life hack, coconut oil. Recently, a Harvard professor (Dr. Michel) was recorded stating that coconut oil is “pure poison”, and I’ve been fielding concerned questions from fat-phobic patients, family and friends ever since.
While I don’t typically comment on nutrition “news” (check out this article explaining how the media gets it wrong the majority of the time when it comes to health topics), I believe it’s necessary to speak up about the recent media controversy surrounding coconut oil. On behalf my patients that have reclaimed their health with a fat-first diet rich in coconut oil, and the unbiased scientists who conscientiously report findings on nutrition studies, I feel it’s necessary to sift through the science and recap the evidence in favour of coconut oil consumption.
After a thorough and critical review of the studies on coconut oil I could not find a single unbiased study to support this professor’s claims. There is one study published in Circulation journal vilifying coconut oil; this study was funded by the Canola Oil Council and the four major drug companies that produce cholesterol lowering medications (hello vested interests!) and it still could not prove that coconut oil is specifically linked to heart disease. This study demonstrated that saturated fats in general are linked to higher LDL levels with the premise being that LDL cholesterol levels predict heart disease. However, it has been repeatedly shown in clinical studies that approximately 50% of patients who have died from a sudden heart attack had normal LDL levels, and that lowering LDL with medications only reduced the risk of a heart attack by 25% (many thoughtful scientists would argue that this decrease in all cause mortality from statin-use is actually linked to the drug’s anti-inflammatory effects, and not directly related to a decrease in LDL levels). Moreover, this study did not differentiate between patients consuming a high-fat / low carb diets and those with a high fat / high carb diet; the latter being a known risk factor for heart disease. This study also failed to differentiate between the amount or type of fats eaten by participants.
Dr. Michel attacked the saturated fat content in coconut oil by using the information in the above study to connect saturated fat consumption to heart disease and high cholesterol. This myth, perpetuated by Ancel Keys in the 1950s, has rigorously been debunked by current medical literature as dubious science. Keys’ biased study called the Seven Countries Study (SCS) contributed to the misleading statistics that started the low-fat craze. The most important flaw from this hypothesis came from the fact that Keys’s study used the terms animal fat, plant fat and saturated fat interchangeably. The primary sources of saturated fat in the standard North American diet are from pizza, desserts, candy, potato chips, pasta, deli meats, fried and processed foods. Keys’s study did not differentiate between effects from saturated fats found in processed foods and those found naturally in whole plant foods like coconut oil. Keys himself even published that sugar and saturated fat were so closely correlated with each other suggesting that the SCS observations were confounded by the intake of processed foods.
The real truth about coconut oil … medical research has failed to show a link between saturated fats found in coconut oil and cholesterol or heart disease. A meta-analysis published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reviewed 21 studies and concluded that the “consumption of saturated fat had no observable correlation to heart issues.” This statement is based on data following >300,000 people for over 14 years. Another study of over 100,000 participants found that those with the highest intake of dietary fat (35% of daily calories) were significantly less likely to get sick and die than those subjects whose diets contained the lowest intake of fat (10% of daily calories). From these findings the authors’ concluded that “high carbohydrate intake was associated with higher risk of total mortality, whereas total fat and individual types of fat were related to lower total mortality.”
Not only is there a lack of evidence showing adverse health outcomes from coconut oil consumption, there is an onslaught of new evidence emerging which shows that coconut oil is actually beneficial for heart health by lowering ‘bad’ cholesterol and raising ‘good’ cholesterol levels. A 2018 study comparing cholesterol levels from various dietary fats found that LDL concentrations were significantly increased from butter intake compared with coconut oil and olive oil. Coconut oil consumption even increased HDL (know as ‘good cholesterol’) compared with butter or olive oil. The study concluded that butter and coconut oil, which are predominantly made up of saturated fats, have very different effects on blood lipids. Coconut oil was found to be more comparable to olive oil with respect to LDL levels. Furthermore, this study showed that the effects of dietary fats on cholesterol levels and health outcomes vary not just according to the classification of fats as saturated or unsaturated but according to the different profiles in individual fatty acids, processing methods as well as the foods in which they are consumed.
Unfortunately, the Internet is full of sensational headlines and false health claims (#fakenews). Biased and unfounded statements about nutritional sciences, like the recent statements made about coconut oil, create confusion and unnecessary stress for those who seek ways to support their health through dietary changes. This is why I will continue to fight for my patients, and to clarify the research when it comes to important topics that affect your health. Please comment below if you have any additional dietary topics that you’d like me to explore in this blog.
Dehghan M, et al. Associations of fats and carbohydrate intake with cardiovascular disease and mortality in 18 countries from five continents (PURE): a prospective cohort study. Lancet. 2017
Harcombe Z, et al. Evidence from randomized controlled trials did not support the introduction of dietary fat guidelines in 1977 and 1983: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Open Heart 2015.
Keys A. Coronary heart disease in seven countries I. The study program and objectives. Circulation 1970.
Keys A. Sucrose in the diet and coronary heart disease. Atherosclerosis 1971.
Khaw, et al. Randomized trial of coconut oil, olive oil or butter on blood lipids and other cardiovascular risk factors in healthy men and women. Nutrition and Metabolism. 2018
Mensink, R.P et al. Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipoproteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2013