Coconut Oil: Not what it is cracked out to be.

The benefits of coconut oil have long been extolled. From miracle hair conditioner to a cure for acne, there is even a suggestion that it could lower some types of fatty acids in the blood.

However, an update from the American Heart Association (AHA) suggests otherwise. By analysing a range of studies they have shown that coconut oil is not good for cardiovascular health concluding that it should be avoided.

What is the problem with coconut oil? It is elemental.

In a nutshell (sorry, excuse the pun), coconut oil is very high in saturated fat. This makes it solid at room temperature.  The reason for it being solid is related to the atoms and bonds it is made of. In the case of saturated fats, each carbon atom is attached to at least two hydrogens.  The carbon atoms are therefore said to be ‘saturated’ with hydrogen.  

Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, tend to be liquid at room temperature. This is because the carbon atoms are not saturated with hydrogen atoms hence they are ‘unsaturated’.

What does this all mean?

Whether a fat is ‘saturated’ or ‘unsaturated’ has some implication on cholesterol levels in the blood. Cholesterol is essential for the formation of healthy cells and is crucial for hormone production. As cholesterol does not mix with water it can not be transported in the blood directly. Transporters, known as lipoproteins, aid the process. The types of lipoproteins we are concerned with are high-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL).

HDL is said to be ‘good’ as it transports cholesterol away from the blood into the liver. Doctors, therefore, prefer higher levels of this in the blood. Meanwhile, LDL is said to be ‘bad’ as it contributes to the deposition of cholesterol in artery walls leading to atherosclerosis (Greek for hardening of arteries). This ultimately causes heart attacks and strokes. Doctors prefer for their patients to have lower levels of LDL. These levels increase with the consumption of saturated fats. Coconut oil is one of these saturated fats.

What do the studies say?

The main study which led to the conclusion made by the AHA was a review of several experiments. They compared coconut oil to butter and plant oil consumption in the indigenous populations of New Zealand, India, the Philippines and the Pacific Islands. 

Overall, coconut oil seemed to raise the level of all types of cholesterol when compared to other plant oils. Butter consumption, however, still raised the levels by the most. 

Does this mean that I should I give up coconut oil?

The reviewers do caution that the studies are of poor quality with small sample sizes. In addition to this, there is no consideration for confounding factors which could contribute to an increase in cholesterol levels such as smoking, or lack of exercise.

Despite the lack of unity in the results, one thing seems clear. It is the context in which the coconut oil is consumed that has the greatest impact on health.  Indigenous populations using coconut oil as part of a traditional diet (one which is high in fruits, vegetables and fibre,) appeared to have fewer incidences of cardiovascular disease than those of the same indigenous group consuming a  Western diet, (high in processed foods, sugar and animal fats). The answer from the AHA based on this, therefore, is to consider how healthy your diet is overall. They even give the suggestion that a Mediterranean diet might be the way forward. 

Related articles How a Mediterranean Diet could save your life,  14-year-old recognises stroke in mother after recalling school lesson

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Any opinions above are the author’s alone and may not represent those of his/her affiliations. Any comment is based on the best available evidence at the time of writing.  All data is based on externally validated studies unless expressed otherwise. Novel data is representative of the sample surveyed. An online recommendation is no substitute for seeing your own doctor and should not be taken as medical advice. Article edited for publication by Dr Hannah Arnstein

Images courtesy of pixabay  and University of Washington

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About nesemsalali (10 Articles)
Medical Doctor interested in Health Journalism. Outside of medicine I am guilty of impulsive book buying.

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