I don’t know about you, but it makes me a bit aggravated that we have to comb through piles of research articles to understand what’s in our food supply these days. I’m supposed to be a nutrition expert and even I get confused. I can tell you dietitians are confused too, because they buy in to a lot of the junk out there – and here’s the thing: most of it is opinion based. For instance, if you keep up with the latest nutrition trends, you likely heard about coconut oil recently and how the American Heart Association has deemed it “unhealthy.” They’ve gone as far to say that we should eliminate it from our diets in order to keep our LDL (aka “bad” cholesterol) at bay. In fact, many of the dietitians (not all) in the circles I run in support this stance. Why? Because “holistic” health is unpopular in a science-based community. I’ve experienced the ridicule directly. Sometimes it’s easier to just believe what the big governing bodies say than to go against the grain. The research is there for functional and homeopathic medicine, but it’s not popular in western medicine.
I’ve been there. I was employed by one of the most well known research-based teaching hospitals in the world for nearly ten years. Going against traditional medicine and what a doctor says isn’t very popular. But we need to think for ourselves sometimes, especially if we are going to call ourselves nutrition experts. Because they don’t have time to talk to people about their patients’ diets. It’s not their thing. Their thing is sick people. We are the ones who have a chance to talk to the well and we are blowing it.
Now let me be very clear. I am NOT one of those people that live in fear of the government’s conspiracy against the people. I am NOT one of those people that believe all big Pharma is out “to get us” nor do I believe doctors or researchers have the cure for cancer and they’re just all hiding it from us to stay rich. I’ve looked into the eyes of a doctor right before and right after he’s had to tell a patient they have cancer and their hope for a long future is shattered. Believe me when I say – being rich was not on that doctor’s mind. But I do believe when it comes to making money, the business of pharmaceuticals as well as food manufacturing is alive and well. But that’s for an entirely different conversation.
So let’s get to the subject of the American Heart Association’s so called “review” of the research. They picked four publications to focus on. By now you’ve probably read some rebuttals on the subject as have I. But as a dietitian, I feel it’s my responsibility to write my own evaluation on the subject and properly educate the public. So let’s start with the facts. The press and the AHA have spotlighted coconut oil as being the evil one yet has failed to mention that coconut oil was not the source of saturated fat in their core studies completed over 50 years ago (side note: I was taught to sick within this decade when reviewing research.) I’ve read it twice just to be sure. The saturated fat sources put to the chopping block come from dairy and animal fats in said studies. Those just aren’t the same thing. At the end, coconut oil gets it’s own section, and based off of seven studies they cherry picked, they concluded that coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol in the same way as animal and dairy fats and thus, conclude that it should be eliminated from our diets. They do admit these studies did not examine coconut oil’s direct effects on CVD. It was also noted to raise HDL cholesterol and lowered the LDL:HDL ratio, however (both good things.) I’ll just leave a recent study right here published at the end of 2015.
If the AHA is going to advise against using coconut oil, why didn’t they recommend we eliminate dairy or meat from our diet? I mean, there was more evidence in their review on those two if you ask me. Now I’m not a vegan and I’ve discussed this diet in another post. But there are a lot of good things to be said about going vegan. But then again, the AHA are proponents of the DASH diet, so there’s that. And as you will see later, although they deny conflicts of interest, that remains questionable. They give honorable mention to the mediterranean diet as well, which I also highly recommend. This one is high in monounsaturated fat and those folks tend to have lower rates of heart disease.
Lastly, the underlying theme of this article was that polyunsaturated fats, more specifically omega-6 fats, will save the day. I’m not sure I buy that. It has been known from previous, more current research that eating a higher proportion of omega-6 (found in soybean oil) to omega-3 (found mostly in flax seed, walnuts, and fish) fat has a negative effect on heart health. I do, however, believe that lowering animal fat will decrease LDL cholesterol, which their studies in this review did show.
Scroll down to the very end of this review, not the post everyone’s reading about how unhealthy coconut oil is, but the actual published paper they are referring to. It was funded by eleven pharmaceutical companies including: Amarin, Amgen, AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly, Glaxo-Smith Kline, Merck, Pfizer, Regeneron/Sano, Takeda, Akcea/ Ionis, and Dr. Reddy. And it was also funded by several others including Esai (energy research and consulting firm), California Walnut Commission (Certified by the AHA, proponents of the DASH and Mediterranean diets), Ag Canada and Canola Oil Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, Seafood Nutrition Partnership, TerraVia (algae oil high in monounsaturated fat, low in saturated fat), and Avocado Nutrition Science Advisors. Need I say more? I think I’m done here.
So what is coconut oil good for anyway?
- Oil pulling: the practice of swishing it around like mouthwash for about 10-20 minutes for oral hygiene purposes. In one study in particular, after just fourteen days there was a reduction in plaque forming bacteria, even as good as using chlorhexidine with distilled water. In a second study, oil pulling reduced plaque and gingivitis markers after just seven days and continued after thirty days.
- Weight loss aid: because it contains medium chain triglycerides, it has been found to decrease waist circumference after four weeks in subjects, particularly men. It has also shown a slight increase in metabolism, however this has only been a temporary effect which is why I don’t generally recommend it for that purpose.
- Antimicrobial and anti-fungal properties: this makes it great for fighting common skin infections and issues like acne, athlete’s foot, candida, even cellulitis.
- Moisturizer: again, great for healing dry, irritated skin and related conditions like eczema or diaper rash. It can even be used as a sunscreen, blocking 20% of UV rays.
- Anti-inflammatory: studies have shown it may help reduce this symptom of oxidative stress.
- Easily digestible energy source that won’t raise blood sugar levels: medium chain triglycerides are the easiest for our bodies to metabolize and thus, are used by the body quickly.
- Carrier oil: as an essential oil lover myself, some of them are considered “hot” and are better if mixed with a carrier and will actually be absorbed better because it holds them to the skin longer rather than the essential oil evaporating quickly. The possibilities are endless if using coconut oil since it already acts as a natural moisturizer and anti-fungal. Add essential oils and all of their various health benefits, you can have anything from bug repellents to sleep creams to extra strength anti-fungal creams and more.
These are just to name a few. Coconut oil has a high smoke point, which makes it easier to cook with than other oils like olive oil. It adds a variety of flavor to foods that need a twist. As with anything, no need to go overboard, if you are wanting the health benefits of consuming it, two tablespoons a day is plenty but anything less is probably not enough. And go for organic, extra virgin. The other stuff is highly processed and health benefits are stripped.
As you may have noticed, I’ve included a ton of links to evidenced-based research in this post. I believe in providing sound advice, I really do. Some of the stuff I’ve talk about has been referred to as “quackery,” but that’s just silly. I understand research and have participated in a few studies myself. It IS possible to have a respect for both sides. So now that we’ve cleared all that up, let me know in the comments what your favorite way to use coconut oil is!
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Jillian McMullen, RDN, CSOWM, LDN