Coconut Oil: Panacea or Artery Clogger?

Earlier today, I tweeted the above video from Dr. Michael Greger’s amazing non-profit NutritionFacts.org website in which he poses the question: Does Coconut Oil Clog Arteries? Based upon peer reviewed research, Dr. Greger went on to address the saturated fat content of this oil and the health hazards posed.

Then I got slammed with e-mails and tweets.

So no good on coconut oil?

I thought you liked it!

Isn’t it a cure-all superfood?

The paleo people tell me it’s a health elixir for the ages!

Now, I’m confused…

On and on. So I thought I would expound a bit on where I stand. Disclaimer: this is my personal perspective. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not a doctor or nutritionist and I certainly don’t play one on the internet.

First, let me just say (admit?) that I do use coconut oil – sparingly.  Yes, it is a saturated fat. But — as I explained in my book  Finding Ultra  — a significant degree of the saturated fat component of coconut oil is composted of lauric acid, which is (comparatively) quickly and easily metabolized as a very good energy source (and has also shown to be immunity boosting).  This means you are likely to burn it for fuel rather than pack it on the waist, provided you are sufficiently active and it isn’t digested along with something high in sugar to supersede & hijack your metabolism first. So yes, paleo folks, I do agree that sugar is a culprit here.

Although I can’t say I use it in coffee as a vegan version of Dave Asprey’s paleo-popular “Bulletproof” coffee (he advises something like a 1/2 stick of grass-fed butter in your morning blend – wait, really?  yes, really), I do include coconut oil (again, sparingly) in some of my (vegetable based) Vitamix blends.  It’s anti-inflammatory when compared to the saturated fats found in animal foods. It’s the optimal oil to cook with — if you are going to cook with oil — due to the fact that it holds up (does not oxidize) better than other oils at high temperatures (translation – less free radicals).  It’s anti-infection and some studies suggest it aids with the absorption of certain vitamins and other nutrients like beta-carotene and some amino acids.

That said, I use it — again, and wait for it — quite sparingly.  In fact, I rub more on my skin than I eat. Then again, I’m probably training more than you are.

Then why sparingly?

Well people, it’s still a saturated fat, one of the few found in the plant kingdom sure, but still a saturated fat — and one that lacks any of those Omega-3’s we’re always trying to get. In my (supported) opinion – hotly contested by the paleo / low carb folks – there is indeed more than a link between dietary saturated fat intake and deleterious health effects, including atherosclerosis. Now the paleo people will likely tell you it’s fine to enjoy your bacon, butter and other foods high in saturated fat like coconut oil. Provided you strictly adhere to their regimen, they will tell you there is no link between such saturated fats and heightened (bad) cholesterol levels or the hardening of the arteries. Then as support, they will refer you to certain isolated indigenous populations like the Inuit, who eat a relatively high degree of saturated fat yet somehow avoid heart disease (probably because they tend to die young, but I digress).  Finally, they will tell you that because coconut oil is comprised (in part) of medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s), this renders it heart-safe (all points my friend Jeff Novick dismisses in the below linked article). Why is paleo so popular right now? One reason just might be that people love to have their bad habits co-signed.

I will not rubberstamp the Paleo perspective on saturated fat intake. Nor will any of the doctors & nutritional experts I most respect. People like Dr. Greger, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. John McDougall, Dr. Garth Davis, Dr. Joel Kahn, Dr. Michael Klaper (all of whom have addressed this very issue directly on my podcast) and others all advocate (as Greger does in this video) that the link between dietary saturated fats and such ill effects is more than legit.  For certain, you can find medical research debate ongoing here.  But I think to completely dismiss this saturated fat / heart disease connection as some kind of quackery, or “a complete joke” — as some in the paleo / low-carb camp would have you believe — is at best misleading and at worst irresponsible on the level of reprehensibility.

Reality check: we’re in the midst of an almost unspeakable health care crisis. Obesity, diabetes and heart disease rates are absurdly high and climbing. 70% of Americans are obese or overweight. 1 out of every 3 Americans will die of heart disease. And by 2030, 50% of Americans will be diabetic or pre-diabetic. According to the CDC, right now 935,000 Americans suffer a heart attack annually, 600,000 of which are fatal.  Coronary disease costs $108.9 billion a year in health care costs and lost productivity. Simply put, all of this is insane.

Certainly, sugar and processed foods are a huge contributory cause. I don’t dispute that. But you cannot reasonably submit that a diet high in saturated fat — in many ways the defining characteristic of the standard American diet — is not also to blame.

In addition, coconut oil as a food is incredibly calorie dense (4 tbsps exceeds the American Heart Association’s RDA for saturated fat), yet poor in nutrient density – a critical variable in calculating the net benefits or detriments of the foods we eat. My friend Jeff Novick, RD goes so far as to say it’s nutritional deficiencies render it the ultimate junk food.Read the hyperlinked piece – it’s a compelling take on this issue.

Remember – we begin working on heart disease when we are very young. Those arteries don’t clog overnight – it’s years in the making and many of us are walking around like ticking time bombs, totally unaware until it has progressed to critical levels.

Healthy, active, fit & trim?  Eat a very clean diet already? Cholesterol & blood tests all good? Then fine — some coconut oil in your diet may not be problematic for you and may be a source of some health benefits (beyond the weight & cholesterol debate) such as those I illustrated above. No doubt it’s good for your skin. But opt to lather rather than eat (too much).

The point is that coconut oil is not some kind of miracle cure panacea or a green light to go overboard.

If you are overweight, a candidate for heart disease or in poor health, think twice and consider foregoing the coconut oil. Actually, forget oil altogether.

I hope this helps clarify my personal opinion on this issue.

Peace + Plants,

Rich

Does this subject matter interest you?  Then you might enjoy my podcast – check it out & subscribe on iTunes HERE.

And as a matter of fact, I had the good Dr. Greger himself on the show – have a listen to our fascinating conversation, one of my most popular episodes: