Say it Ain’t So (A Case Against: Coconut Oil is Bad for You)

this “article” is a paper I wrote for one of my classes as a rebuttal against the USA Today article and the study published by the American Heart Association. For the original article, click the link at the bottom

On June 16th, USA Today published an article titled, “Coconut Oil Isn’t Healthy, It’s Never Been Healthy” in response to a statement released by the American Heart Association regarding saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. This article uses research related to saturated fat and applies it to coconut oil, making many claims about it without studying coconut oil specifically. Both the article and the statement itself were based on existing data on saturated fat and the effect it has on cholesterol – specifically LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol. Through the use of several peer-reviewed studies on PubMed, I shall demonstrate why these claims about saturated fat cannot be applied to coconut oil. Further, I will discuss how coconut oil has been found to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease through increased antioxidant function, decreased LDL cholesterol, increased neuroprotective qualities and decreased response exercise-induced stress.

The article on USA Today, written by Ashley May, self-described as a multimedia journalist who follows trending news, begins by explaining that the American Heart Association reviewed existing studies and concluded that coconut oil is unhealthy. She quotes them in saying that, “because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no offsetting favourable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.” (Sacks, 2017) From there, the article goes on to quote Frank Sacks, the lead author on the report who says that he, “has no idea why people think coconut oil is healthy because it is almost 100% fat.” (May, 2017) May acknowledges that this idea may have come from studies showing that Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) may help with weight loss but that regardless, the American Heart Association recommends that no more than 6% of our daily calories should come from saturated fat. She also says that people who remove saturated fat from their diet may not reduce their risk of CVD but that we should stick to vegetable oils and olive oil anyway. The article ends with the statement, “you can put it on your body [as moisturizer] but don’t put it in your body.” (Sacks, 2017)

Firstly, I want to address the type of language that is used in the article by USA Today. The title alone aims to trigger a shock response from the readers in hopes of getting them to read it. The article continues in this exact way – by using language that aims to frighten people out of using coconut oil. It capitalizes on the idea that when people are scared, they might not look as closely or as critically at the research that was done. When research is done legitimately, one should not need to use scare tactics – the research should speak for itself.

Upon examining the study that they used to reach their conclusion, it is clear that coconut oil itself was not studied, but rather saturated fat in general. The existing study conducted by the AHA found that diets high in saturated fat lead to an increased risk of CVD. In randomized controlled trials that lowered intake of saturated fats and increased intake of polyunsaturated fats, CVD risk was found to decrease. I can understand why these studies had the outcomes they did. However, it is important to discuss what a “diet high in saturated fat” looks like. Saturated fats are far more shelf-stable than unsaturated fats, and thus are often created in order to give processed foods a longer shelf-life (in things like cookies, crackers, fast food, potato chips, ice cream and other dairy products.) As such, a diet high in saturated fat looks like a diet high in processed foods. In this study, by reducing intake of saturated fat (and therefore eliminating processed foods) it makes sense that the risk of CVD decreased. However, coconut oil contains naturally occurring saturated fat, is high in MCTs and Lauric Acid and therefore cannot be grouped in with all saturated-fat-containing processed foods.

In a randomized study of coconut oil versus sunflower oil conducted by the Cardiological Society of India, they followed two groups over a two-year period based on the concept that saturated fatty acids increase the risk of atherosclerosis by increasing cholesterol levels. Group one was given coconut oil to use in their cooking for two years while group two was given sunflower oil. Anthropometric measurements, serum lipids, lipoprotein a, apo B/A ratio, antioxidants, flow-mediated vasodilation and cardiovascular events were assessed at 3 months, 6 months, 1 year and 2 years. They concluded that, “coconut oil, although rich in saturated fatty acids in comparison to sunflower oil did not change the lipid-related cardiovascular risk factors and events in those receiving standard medical care.” (Vijayakumar, 2016)

Further, in the USA Today article, they address the data found on MCTs and how they have been linked to improved weight loss. However, they claim that the research done to prove this was done on 100% MCT oils while coconut oil is only about 13-15% MCTs. In a study done on Lauric-Acid-Rich-Medium-Chain-triglycerides done by Catalytic Longevity in California they found that pure MCTs are very unstable to cook with and that lauric-acid-rich-MCTs are far safer yet still maintain the weight loss benefits. Coconut oil is closer in structure to a lauric-acid-rich-MCT. They found that the MCTs in lauric-acid-rich-MCTs are not stored in adipose tissue and do not increase “ectopic fat” metabolites that promote insulin resistance, inflammation, and may be slightly less likely to produce or activate macrophages (which are pro-inflammatory). They also found that, “although Lauric Acid (LA) tends to raise serum cholesterol, it has a more substantial impact on high density lipoprotein (HDL) [“good” cholesterol] than low density lipoprotein (LDL) [“bad cholesterol]” (McCarthy, 2016)
Antioxidants are vital to heart-health, cancer prevention and help prevent overall oxidative stress. In an experimental controlled study done on mice, they tested how stress levels might be influenced by virgin coconut oil (VCO) in comparison to anti-depression drugs and saline solution. The mice were given one of three substances for a week and then were subjected to a swim test. The mice given VCO exhibited shorter immobility time, lower lipid peroxidation, lower inflammation and higher antioxidant levels than the mice given saline or diazepam. The mice given VCO also had a faster restoration of antioxidant brain levels which may help prevent neural damage. From these observations, they concluded that VCO has a beneficial role in improving antioxidant status and therefore preventing lipid and protein oxidation.

The article by USA today fails to address the issue of coconut oil properly due to a lack of research on coconut oil itself and its effect on cardiovascular health. By using a study solely based on diets high in saturated fat, they decreased their sample size to only those who eat a diet high in processed foods. Those who consume coconut oil for its health benefits and are presumably concerned with their health cannot be grouped in to the category as people who eat a diet high in saturated fat. Coconut oil has been proven to increase antioxidant status, lower depression, decrease inflammation, lower LDL cholesterol, and aid in neuroprotection and weight loss. All of these factors contribute to the larger picture of health – and especially cardiovascular health. Had the study conducted by the American Heart Association actually been about coconut oil, there may have been more merit to the statement they released and the subsequent article by USA Today. However, since coconut oil was not studied, it is impossible to conclude that coconut oil acts like any other saturated fat in the body.

REFERENCES

May, A. (2017, June 17). Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy. Retrieved June 18, 2017, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/06/16/coconut-oil-isnt-healthy-its-never-been-healthy/402719001/

Mccarty, M. F., & Dinicolantonio, J. J. (2016). Lauric acid-rich medium-chain triglycerides can substitute for other oils in cooking applications and may have limited pathogenicity. Open Heart,3(2). doi:10.1136/openhrt-2016-000467

Sacks, F. M., Lichtenstein, A. H., Wu, J. H., Appel, L. J., Creager, M. A., Kris-Etherton, P. M., . . . Horn, L. V. (2017). Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association. Circulation. doi:10.1161/cir.0000000000000510

Vijayakumar, M., Vasudevan, D., Sundaram, K., Krishnan, S., Vaidyanathan, K., Nandakumar, S.,. Mathew, N. (2016). A randomized study of coconut oil versus sunflower oil on cardiovascular risk factors in patients with stable coronary heart disease. Indian Heart Journal,68(4), 498-506. doi:10.1016/j.ihj.2015.10.384

Yeap, S., Beh, B., Ali, N., Yusof, H., Ho, W., Koh, S., . . . Long, K. (2014). Antistress and antioxidant effects of virgin coconut oil in in vivo. Experimental and Therapeutic Medicine. doi:10.3892/etm.2014.2045

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