Coconut Oil, Saturated Fat, and Your Health

Putting this popular ingredient in perspective

Overhead view of spoonful of cold coconut oil on jar
RUSS ROHDE/Getty Images

Considering the recent barrage of headlines regarding adding coconut oil to your diet for health (some pro, some con), you might imagine that the average consumption of coconut oil in the United States was on par with that of milk or cheese. In reality, the numbers seem to indicate otherwise.

Coconut consumption per capita in the United States is about 1.5 pounds a year (that includes oil and all other products). By contrast, cheese consumption amongst Americans is about 35 pounds per year—more than 20 times higher. Even more impressive is the statistic that, in 2014 in the United States, the average consumption of animal flesh (red meat, poultry, shellfish, and fish) was 181 pounds per citizen, or 100 times more than coconut. And to top it all off, we ate 239 pounds of dairy (excluding cheese) per year per capita, or 150 times the humble coconut.

Why Is Coconut Oil in the News?

That is a good question. The hype mainly stems from a document released by the American Heart Association's Presidential Advisory entitled “Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease.”

A panel of a dozen well-known and respected researchers from Harvard, Tufts, Northwestern, and other universities was asked to review older and recent research on the relationship between foods higher in saturated fats, like meat, butter, cheese, and dairy, and heart disease risk.

Given the news coverage, you might have thought that all the American Heart Association addressed was the topic of coconut oil. Hardly a whimper has been heard in the press about the detailed analysis concluding that reducing foods rich in animal saturated fats and replacing them with plant-based substitutes, particularly as it relates to choosing a vegetable oil over butter or lard, was the most important recommendation.

Media seemed to zero in on a single paragraph that said, “because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”

That was it—just 25 words and four scientific references out of thousands of words, 25 pages, and nearly 200 references included in the document.

Cuckoo for Coconut Oil

In my opinion, the AHA advisors were responsible in highlighting the potential health risks of adding coconut oil into the diet. The ingredient has been dubiously advocated by many fitness and nutrition advisors and garnered a place in many people’s diets that it doesn’t really deserve. However, you probably do not eat all that much coconut oil to begin with.

Highlighting this as the takeaway of this advisory shifts attention away from what you should really focus on to improve the odds that you will remain free of heart disease. Here are some comments and conclusions from the AHA paper that you likely haven’t heard in your evening news report—information that is far more important than the headlines about coconut oil.

Cheese Isn’t Special: The Presidential Advisory evaluated the role of cheese, a food high in animal saturated fat. It has been suggested that, because cheese is fermented before eating, it may not affect heart disease risk as much as other, non-fermented dairy products. The researchers’ conclusion? There is no data to support this.

It would be prudent to cut down or cut out full-fat dairy as a strategy to reduce your dietary intake of animal saturated fat. There are many tasty cheese-like products, some quite elegant and mimicking Brie, Camembert, and other favorites, made from nuts and seeds available in grocery stores and online.

Watch Your Intake of Full-fat Milk and Butter: Though you probably couldn’t tell from the headlines, the authors had opinions that favored reducing or replacing these items to lower your intake of animal saturated fat.

The most powerful statement they included focused on an effort in the 1970s in Finland that set out to deal with the highest rate of heart attacks in the Western world:

“A successful nationwide health project to lower the very high rate of CHD (coronary heart disease) mortality, started in 1972, had as a major goal the reduction in the high intake of saturated fat. The project reduced intake of high-fat milk and butter, which lowered serum cholesterol by 13 percent in men and 18 percent in women. By 1992, CHD death rates decreased by 55 percent in men and 68 percent in women.”

This is an important message for your health. The long-term reduction in heart attack and heart death risk that comes with swapping butter and high-fat milk for alternatives lower or free of animal saturated fat, like almond milk and vegetable oil spreads, favors your heart health, too.

Don’t Forget About Meat

Meat consumption was not specifically discussed in detail by the AHA Advisory. As you may be aware, animal meats, both red and white, whether processed and unprocessed, have high amounts of saturated fats. Indeed, four of the top 10 sources of saturated fats in the diet are meat, particularly bacon and chicken. If you want to transition your diet to a more heart healthy one, reducing or eliminating meats is advisable.

We know the key elements of a healthy human diet, and they have been outlined by the Harvard School of Public Health, the True Health Initiative, and others. It’s important to pay attention to reliable headlines, but be sure that you put them in context and keep focused on what’s most important when it comes to preserving your health.

Try to eat less meat, butter, and cheese, and find replacements like beans, vegetable oil spreads free of trans fats, and nut-based cheeses. Add in more fruits and vegetables to every meal and as snacks. And if you want to use coconut oil in your smoothie and you are free of heart disease and diabetes mellitus, use a pinch (not a pound).

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