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Coconut Oil: Panacea or Artery Clogger?

Earlier today, I tweeted the above video from Dr. Michael Greger’s 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 there’s no issue!” “Now, I’m confused…” and 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.

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.  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 debated 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 remain healthy.  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 Jeff Novick tackles 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 cannot rubberstamp this perspective.  Nor can most of the doctors & nutritional experts I most respect.  People like Dr. Greger, Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, Dr. Dean Ornish, Dr. John McDougall and others all of whom 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.  

Particularly when we are in a health care crisis where obesity rates are absurdly high and climbing.  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, that 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 staurated 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:

  • http://twitter.com/seano4fitness Sean O’Meara

    Great post, Rich! Thanks for sharing – lots of great points in there. A lot of times folks here part of a claim and go run with it, without any context or full understanding.

  • Rob

    Interesting debate. I’m a coconut oil user (although my total fat consumption is pretty low). I came across the same debate on other blogs. A couple of things cause me to question whether saturated fat is really the bad guy it is made out to be:

    - how do we explain the Tokelau, the Masai, and the Inuit. They all had high saturated fat diets yet the data does not support the correlation with heart disease.
    - Ancel Keys with his seven countries study that correlated saturated fat with increased risks of heart disease. Ancel omitted 15 countries that didn’t support his hypothesis.

    That does not mean I would go out and scoff high saturated fat foods.

    • Rick

      Rob, I would say the more salient question may be why Dr. Esselstyn’s vegan study shows dramatic angiographic evidence of reversal of artery blockage. As to the Inuit, this abstract from Arctic Medical Research may shed light on part of the answer:

      “Coronary heart disease in Greenland Inuit: a paradox. Implications for western diet patterns.”
      Dyerberg J.
      AbstractEpidemiologic
      examinations of Greenland Inuit have disclosed a connection between
      high seafood intake containing a high level of n-3 polyunsaturated fatty
      acids (PUFAs) and a low coronary heart disease (CHD) morbidity. Other
      epidemiologic studies have confirmed this interrelation, and a
      biological substrate for a causal relationship has been established.
      This includes a lipid lowering effect of n-3 PUFAs and a modulatory
      effect on eicosanoid metabolism, shifting platelet vessel wall balance
      in an antithrombotic direction. Other metabolic effects of n-3 PUFAs are
      an altered inflammatory response to proinflammatory stimuli and a
      modest hypotensive effect.

    • http://twitter.com/Verdi_Michael Michael Verdi

      Hi Rob,

      Check out these videos…You have been misinformed about Ancel Keys and the diets of those indigenous people can be explained as well. Turns out calorie restriction and parasites both lower cholesterol levels.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x6j75BDq6DQ&list=PLCC2CA9893F2503B5

  • http://www.facebook.com/KevinBHansen Kevin Hansen

    If you couple Dr Greger’s post with the article posted on VegSource.com by Sarah Taylor with regard to vegans experiencing high cholesterol due to intake of vegan fats the idea of being a bullet proof vegan seems to only be possible with the Dr. Essylsten’s idea of no oil. I thought I could eat a bunch of nut butters, coconut oil and nuts even though I’ve been vegan for four years. My cholesterol still came in a little higher than I thought it should have. I am now firmly in the Essylsten camp. No oil! In my case I’m kicking out nut butters too.

  • ben

    its not the saturated fat making so many obese, it’s the sugar and refined carbs and the lack of exercise….. Recent research has re-proven cholesterol levels have nothing to do with fat in a diet. Obviously everything in moderation though

    • http://twitter.com/Verdi_Michael Michael Verdi

      re-proven??? The link between saturated fat, obesity, and heart disease has been proven by hundreds of peer reviewed scientific studies. It is not even a question in the public health profession. John Yudkin and his ‘sugar causes heart disease’ theory has never been proven to be true in any meaningful study to date

  • Simon

    Thanks Rich, great article. Jeff’s article really put it all in perspective too (as usual).

  • Christopher Hague

    Would you say that the same applies to other high saturated fat products like coconut milk and avocado?

    • http://twitter.com/Verdi_Michael Michael Verdi

      Avocados are not high in saturated fat

  • rick

    I “did paleo” -including coconut oil- for over ten years prior to a cardiac arrest during a USTA tennis match. Lucky for me, the other team included a cardiologist who did heroic cpr along with another doc in the house until the rescue squad arrived 13 minutes later to shock my heart back to activity. That night I underwent a 6 vessel bypass surgery. Since then, going on 4 years ago, I have been an Esselstyn compliant vegan. Happily -besides still being on the good earth- I do multi-sport and 10 ks at the age of 64. I can’t say paleo and coconut oil solely caused my cardiac issues, but I do believe that it did me no good in terms of reversing the damage caused prior to that by the SAD -quite the opposite of the Esselstyn diet which has obviously helped tremendously.

  • http://www.facebook.com/alisoncole75 Alison Cole

    Thank you so much for this write-up, Rich. It helps me understand the whole issue better.

  • Judah Ciervo

    http://www.rodale.com/recommended-sugar-intake

    AGEs have more to do with CVD then most realize.

    LDL b levels increase linearly with an increase in carbohydrate/decrease in fat % of diet.

  • Richard

    Before reading Finding Ultra last year, I’d already read The China Study, Esselstyn’s Make Yourself Heart Attack Proof and Dr. Graham’s 80-10-10, so I’m firmly in the vegan camp – there’s just too much evidence from these and other studies to dismiss. It’s disappointing when people flippantly dismiss The China Study based on one small facet when it’s a comprehensive body of work covering many topics and areas of research. That said, from a weight management and fuelling for the workout standpoint, the paleo diet or the “No Sugar, No Grains” approaches are clearly working for some people – at least superficially and I can see their appeal. Personally, my main concern with the high fat diets and the animal consumption are the things that are going on inside the body that you can’t see. How do we know they’re not slowly clogging up their arteries (high fat) or feeding slow growing tumours (animal protein)? It’s all very good looking great and being able to take part in endurance events today, but it’s no good if you drop dead of a heart attack or are diagnosed with cancer tomorrow.

  • 14th Monkey

    2 word on the healthy oil front – Avocado Oil !

    It has a very high smoking point – so great to cook with. If cold pressed retains all its great health benefits. Has a neutral flavor that actually enhances the flavors in a dish rather than masks them.

    Down side – even though there are a lot of avocados in California – no one makes it locally!! and there are a lot of Olives and a powerful Olive industry that would like to keep it off the shelves.

    Its out there though – from Chile, Mexico, South Africa and New Zealand and I strongly recommend you give it a try.

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  • Lawrence Farnsworth

    I’ve just finished 3 months using it as a supplement, as promoted by Paleo cultists, instead of the flaxseed oil I was supplementing with previously.

    No positive effects observed,
    Negative effects; Slight weight increase (with no other changes to diet or training regime)
    Slight skin dryness, probably caused by the disappearance of flaxseed oil from my diet.

  • Caryn Lipson

    Gary Taubes, a noted scientific researcher and author, explains how we came to accepting the low fat, low cholesterol dogma in this article – The Soft Science of Dietary Fat
    : http://www.second-opinions.co.uk/taubes.html#.Ub8d-9hkl3K

  • Judit

    Which science did you access re that animal fat is inflammatory? Sorry have to check – I really really really read all the science and I check the et al’s, always. Because for me it’s a case of life and death so I have to know for sure. I take it you’re not a fan of Dr’s. Meades, Attia, Perlmutter, Noakes, Donald Miller, Volek, etc and the scientifically based books of gary taubes eg Good Calories Bad Calories (I find that book has the same standing as Tolstoi’s war and peace – people buy it but they don’t read from cover to cover – I do!), well you got the picture?