Recently the article Coconut oil is 'pure poison', says Harvard professor has been making waves across the media, demonising coconut oil, due to its saturated fat content.
This is not new news, but has unfortunately been a part of the nutrition conversation for over five decades. Health authorities have been telling us that saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease, but did you know that this theory has never been proven?
How did this happen?
To work out where we went wrong, we need to start as far back as the 1940s with the Framingham Heart Study (FHS), a long-term, ongoing cardiovascular cohort study on residents of the town Framingham, Massachusetts.
Under the direction of the National Heart Institute (now known as the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute), the Framingham Heart Study was a long-term study, designed to identify the common contributing factors in cardiovascular disease (CVD) in a large group of participants who had not yet developed symptoms or suffered a heart attack or stroke. Since its inception, more than 1000 medical papers have been published with reference to the Framingham Heart Study but it is not without its flaws. One of the first two areas of interest of the researchers was to investigate how diet related to cholesterol levels and to the development of heart disease. This has led to one of the biggest criticisms and flaws of the FHS.
High dietary saturated fat levels were blamed by the FHS as a leading cause of heart disease, yet the FHS originally found that there was no relationship between a fat intake and a participant’s cholesterol level. When looking closely at the data, it can also be found that lowered cholesterol levels correlates with an increase of CVD death in participants over the age of 50. At the time of conducting the research, these findings puzzled the researchers and were not included in their official report.
We then turn to post-war Europe when researchers in the industry noticed a decrease in the incidence of heart disease. In 1956, a researcher by the name of Ancel Keys started the world's first multi-country epidemiological study, which systematically examined the relationships between lifestyle, diet, coronary heart disease and stroke in different populations from different regions of the world.
Significantly, Keys studied the effect of dietary fat on health status. The European diet, he believed, was in vast contrast to the Americans, who were among the best-fed individuals in the world, consuming a diet high in animal fat. Keys assumed the post-war reduction in food supply (and therefore a lower fat diet) was a leading cause of the observed improved health status.
From 1958 to 1964, Ancel Keys’ team correlated their data with heart disease outcomes in a series of regressions, plotting dietary fat intake against the heart disease deaths and assessing how closely heart disease deaths tracked with fat intake. First published in 1978, Keys’ work has since come under much scrutiny. It is a well-known fact that correlation doesn’t equal causation. It has also been proven that Keys selected countries that backed up his outcomes, when there were 21 for which data was available. Analysis of the full data set made the connections between fat intake and heart disease statically less clear. In fact, the same data set has since been used to support the positive correlation between sugar and chronic disease, but at the time this was completely ignored. The influence of Keys on the world of nutrition has been unsurpassed.
So, what are the facts?
Current research clearly proves that saturated fats do not cause heart disease. In fact, in 2010, twenty-one past studies were included in a meta-analysis of 347,747 individuals. The results of this study clearly state there is ‘no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of heart disease’.
It is also important to note that much of the initial research was conducted on rabbits, whose natural diet does not include cholesterol-containing food. Our cholesterol metabolism is essential for human life and of course, vastly different to rabbits. Prior to the industrial revolution, saturated fats were the most prominent sources of fat in the human diet and sustained our ancestors for centuries.
Lastly, dietary cholesterol only raises blood levels by 1-2%, so its effect is only ever going to be mild. The even better news is that saturated fat actually exerts a positive influence on our high-density lipoprotein (HDL). The role of HDL is to transport cholesterol away from our arteries and towards the liver, where it may be either excreted or reused. Cholesterol is essential to human life - without cholesterol, we would die, and our bodies have developed elaborate mechanisms to manufacture it, to make sure we always have enough.
The benefits of coconut oil
Coconut oil provides an abundance of health, and heart health, benefits. Lauric and stearic acids help to regulate cholesterol levels and reduce lipoprotein A, a known risk factor for heart disease. Caprylic acid has many antibacterial and anti-viral properties, providing essential immune support. Saturated fats act as nervous system insulation, decreasing your susceptibility to internal and external stress. Not only is your brain predominately made from saturated fat, but it provides the building blocks for our cell membranes and hormones, and acts as a carrier for our fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Pretty essential, I’m sure you will agree. Saturated fat is a concentrated source of energy and is therefore blood sugar and insulin steadying. These are the keys to energy, satiety, mental clarity, cognition, weight control and reducing your risk of age-associated inflammatory diseases, including CVD.
So please, continue to use coconut oil and share this knowledge with your loved ones. We must stop the use of outdated, disproven and flawed research from governing our dietary guidelines and nutritional conversations in the West. The answer to all health begins with real food.
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Kraus R et al., 2006. Saturated fat in the diet does not raise serum cholesterol. American Journal Clinical Nutrition, 84, 6, 1550.
Siri-Tarino PW et al., 2010. Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 91, 3, 535-546.
Rosch PJ & Harcombe Z. 2016. Fat and cholesterol don't cause heart attacks and statins are not the solution. Wales: Columbus Publishing.
Yerushalmy J & Hilleboe HE. 1957. Fat in the diet and mortality from heart disease. A methodologic note. New York State Journal of Medicine, 57, 2343–54.