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Coconut Oil Controversy

Coconut oil

In case you missed it, the American Heart Association (AHA) recently published a Presidential Advisory on Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease. It summarizes the current research on dietary fat intake and cardiovascular health and provides recommendations based upon the results from research studies. The evidence cited supports the theory that replacing dietary saturated fat (regardless of its source) with polyunsaturated fat (canola oil, corn oil, soybean oil, peanut oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil and walnuts) produces the greatest reduction in heart disease risk (greatest LDL cholesterol reduction and regression of atherosclerosis). Replacing saturated fat with monounsaturated fat (olive oil, avocados, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pistachios and pecans) also reduces the risk of heart disease. The AHA reviewed the studies on coconut oil, a trendy type of cooking oil that is about 82 percent saturated fat. Research shows that while coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, it also increases HDL cholesterol, the good cholesterol. However, the AHA found that changes in HDL cholesterol are no longer directly linked to changes in cardiovascular disease. Therefore, the AHA uses LDL cholesterol levels as the most predictive of cardiovascular health and made its recommendations on dietary fat intake with the goal of lowering LDL cholesterol levels (not raising HDL cholesterol). Because studies found that consuming coconut oil and saturated fat increases LDL cholesterol, the AHA does not recommend consuming it.

The AHA’s position is not without controversy. Many tout coconut oil as one of the healthiest foods to consume. Some argue that the medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil can, among other things, treat Alzheimer’s disease, prevent heart disease and high blood pressure, cure urinary tract infections and kidney infections, reduce inflammation and arthritis, and boost the immune system. Additionally, some argue it can help boost metabolism and support fat and weight loss. Many, including the Mayo Clinic, also argue that LDL cholesterol is not the best indicator of heart disease risk. Rather, focusing on the ratio of cholesterol and non-HDL levels is more predictive of cardiovascular health. The optimal ratio is less than 3.5-to-1, with higher ratios indicating higher risk of heart disease. This is why coconut oil enthusiasts believe the AHA’s recommendations are incorrect.

It is important to keep in mind that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends decreasing saturated fat intake and consuming more unsaturated fat than saturated fat. The recommendations are to limit -- not avoid -- saturated fat. The Guidelines recommend that no more than 10 percent of calories come from saturated fat. Thus, coconut oil can be part of a healthy diet when that diet is otherwise rich in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes and unsaturated fats, and saturated fat consumption is limited to less than 10 percent of total calories.

Written by: Abby Cannon, Wellness Workdays Dietetic Intern


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