Is the media flipping the script on coconut oil? Don’t throw your jar in the trash yet, despite the recent anti-coconut oil screed released by the American Heart Association (AHA). Coconut oil is the latest innocent victim of the myth about saturated fats and your heart.

The Diet-Heart Hypothesis: Fact, Myth and Politics

Recently-published guidelines from the American Heart Association (AHA) reiterate the longstanding view, the so-called diet-heart hypothesis, touting saturated fats as detrimental to heart health and recommending avoidance. Coconut oil, because of its growing popularity, merits a special section, singling it out as a source of “unhealthy” saturated fats.

Good for you? Bad for you? Let’s clear up the confusion about saturated fats. The diet-heart hypothesis came in during the 1960s. It changed the way America eats. It brought us the low- fat, no-fat and low-cholesterol dietary craze of the 1970s, 80s and 90s. The diet-heart hypothesis has been tested in more scientific studies than any other nutritional hypothesis in the last half-century. What are the facts?

50 Years of Low-Fat Diet and Heart Disease No Better Off

Since the 1970s, Americans have cut their intake of saturated fats (the “solid” fats primarily from animal and dairy sources) and increased their intake of polyunsaturated vegetable oils, recommended by the AHA guidelines. Yet, fifty years later, heart disease remains a leading cause of death in the USA.

Ironically, after cutting out nutrient-dense saturated fats, Americans replaced those fats with nutrient-poor high-carbohydrate and and sugary foods, promoted by food manufacturers as “low fat.” The result has been the current national epidemic of obesity – a risk factor for many chronic illnesses, including (of course) cardiovascular disease! Fat does not make you fat, carbs and sugars make you fat.

Some parts of the original diet-heart hypothesis – linking heart disease with dietary cholesterol and overall fat intake – have been disproven and quietly dropped. Recommendations have been changed. Eggs (a source of dietary cholesterol), avocados and nuts (monounsaturated fats) are now back on the AHA menu. Yet the AHA’s most recent guidelines still claim the scientific evidence links saturated fats, like those in butter and coconut oil, with heart disease.

Cherry Picking Data

The AHA based its review on only four research studies, of the dozens that have been done over the years. Expert rebuttals from the mainstream medical and scientific community have decried this as “Bing Crosby epidemiology” – accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative. Just bury the data that doesn’t support your hypothesis. At least nine other scientific reviews, which included more studies, reached conclusions that refute the AHA’s position on saturated fat intake.

Inflammatory Advice

Meanwhile, the AHA’s recommended substitutes, polyunsaturated vegetable oils (PUFAs) have proven health detriments: PUFAs are pro-inflammatory. Synthetically derived from corn, soy and other plants, PUFAs are chemically unstable and easily oxidized. Once oxidized, the “free radicals” released cause inflammatory damage to tissues. Inflammation contributes to almost all chronic illnesses, including heart health and thyroid function. PUFAs also have a high ratio of pro-inflammatory Omega 6 fatty acids to anti-inflammatory Omega 3s.

If so many studies refute the diet-heart hypothesis, and PUFAs are dangerous, why does the AHA continue to recommend synthetic polyunsaturated vegetable oils and vilify coconut oil and other saturated fats?

Follow the Heart-Check Money

AHA is a non-profit with longstanding reliance corporate sponsorship from the food industry, including manufacturers of vegetable oil (Procter & Gamble, Bayer, Unilever). Three of the four research studies that the AHA relies on for its conclusions are backed by these same corporations. The financial interests are transparent.

The AHA also runs a money-making “Heart Check Program.” Food companies can pay to use the Heart Check logo and be listed as “heart healthy” foods. The list includes high-sugar, high- carbohydrate foods like Cheerios, Orange Juice and V8 Fusion, as well as many processed and canned foods and meats with known health detriments.

Health Benefits of Saturated Fats & Coconut Oil

The truth is, saturated fats, including the fats in coconut oil, play a key role in many metabolic processes. The many health benefits of adequate saturated fat intake include:

  • healthy heart: Saturated fats are the preferred source of fuel for your heart and during energy expenditure. They also help lower key cardiovascular risk factor, lipoprotein (a).
  • strong bones: Saturated fat is required for calcium uptake into bones.
  • healthy liver: Saturated fat protects the liver from the deleterious effects of alcohol and medication.
  • robust cell membranes: Saturated fats constitute 50% of cell membranes, giving them stiffness and integrity.
  • healthy brain: Saturated fats are a key component of the brain, and the raw material the brain needs to function normally.
  • strong immune system: The fats found in butter and coconut oil (lauric acid) are key for immune health and the health of white blood cells. Some saturated fats also have antiviral and antifungal properties.

More Reasons to Eat Coconut Oil

How about coconut oil in particular? In addition to the immune health benefits mentioned above, coconut oil has some other important properties:

  • promote weight loss: Coconut oil contains mostly medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). These are more easily processed by the liver and converted to energy, rather than being stored as fat. They stimulate the body’s metabolism and help with weight loss.
  • supports thyroid health: The fats in coconut oil are highly stable and don’t easily go rancid, like those in PUFAs. For several reasons, this helps promote thyroid function and the conversion of thyroid hormones.

Participating in Your Health

Foods containing healthy saturated fats, like coconut oil, deserve a place on everyone’s menu. Nonetheless, people vary in their nutritional needs, depending on their genetic makeup and health status. If you are interested in learning more about how to eat an optimal diet, you may wish to partner with a nutritional expert, who can help you fine-tune your diet to your specific needs. Listen to your body, check your information sources, and remain committed to maintaining holistic health.

For more information on medicinal foods and herbs, contact Inner Works Acupuncture at (503) 227-2127 to schedule an appointment. We are based in Portland and offer full-body health treatments and counseling, including Five Element AcupunctureZero BalancingChinese herbal medicine, and more.