This Big Fat Debate On Coconut Oil is Way Too Confusing (Be Careful!)

Have you seen the news?  Everywhere I've looked this past week there have been headlines like:

"Coconut oil isn't healthy. It's never been healthy." - USA Today
"So Coconut Oil Is Actually Really, Really Bad For You" - IFL Science
"The Truth About So-Called ‘Superfood’ Coconut Oil" - The New Daily

Yikes!

This headline is really, really, misleading. 

This headline is really, really, misleading. 

The hubbub stems from the American Heart Association's (AHA) newly published presidential advisory in which they "conclude strongly that lowering intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of cardiovascular disease."

In short: "For less heart attacks, eat less saturated fat." And guess what has more saturated fats than any other food? Coconut oil!

If this is true, this is a big problem for Heilu. Heilu butter, as we've pointed out before, has a similar saturated fat composition to coconut oil. Could it be that not only we're making people faint of heart by suggesting they eat bug fat, but we're literally damaging their hearts as well?

Probably not.

Here's why, a quick overview of why you should be careful when it comes to the AHA and their report, and how to be careful in general. 

Be Careful With Coconut Oil the AHA

Before looking at the report, let's quickly look at the ones who released the report, the American Health Association.

Are they infallible?

Certainly not. The AHA has previously urged food processors to replace saturated fats with trans fats, fought for decades against dietary cholesterol, and today promotes a high-carb, low-fat diet. The first two have been completely disproven and the latter may be on its way to joining them. 

Are they impartial?

Considering the AHA's major funding sources include big pharma companies, vegetable oil lobbyists, and a beef association—all of whom would stand to benefit from the conclusions of the report—you can't help but question their motives and impartiality.  

The AHA also earns significant funds from food manufacturers who pay to put the "Heart Check" symbol on their labels, even on sugary foods. (photo from thelowcarbdiabetic.blogspot.ca) 

The AHA also earns significant funds from food manufacturers who pay to put the "Heart Check" symbol on their labels, even on sugary foods. (photo from thelowcarbdiabetic.blogspot.ca) 

Be Careful With Rushing to Conclusions

While headlines seem to indicate "new news," the first thing you should know about the AHA report is that it contains no new information. It is old data (mostly from the 1960s) looked at in a new way. The AHA consolidated data from four studies, each of which compared the levels of cardiovascular disease between one group that was fed a diet with saturated fats and another fed a diet with polyunsaturated fats. 

As nutritionist Chris Masterjohn points out in his excellent podcast episode on the topic, the way the analysis was performed has some serious issues. 

For example, in one study the group of people on the saturated fat diet had twice as many heavy smokers and sixty percent more moderate smokers than the group being fed the polyunsaturated fat diet. Since smoking is an undeniable and significant cause of cardiovascular disease, it's wrong to attribute the saturated fat group's higher levels of heart problems to their diet.

The data of the other three studies used for the AHA report has similar issues. In addition, other studies that showed a positive effect of saturated fats on cardiovascular disease were dubiously excluded. 

All in all, the overall effect of saturated fats—and coconut oil in general—on cardiovascular disease is still very uncertain. If you hear any claims otherwise, be careful. 

How To Make A Careful Decision? 

Instead of allowing yourself to be influenced by dramatic headlines, look for a balanced and layman-friendly analysis. A good example is Examine.com's 21 best arguments for and against coconut oil. You'll learn that coconut oil is no killer, nor is it a magical superfood, but that it does have some worthwhile (and proven!) benefits. 

I particularly like their conclusion:

"Just keep in mind the mantra of simplicity: it’s not wise to buy supplements (or supplemental foods) because you see other people doing it or the product is heavily marketed. If you like the taste, great. Or if you find evidence convincing, or want a stable cooking oil, excellent. Just make an informed decision for yourself instead of following the crowd."

And if you don't have time for research, forget this big fat debate entirely. You're better off focusing on a different cause of cardiovascular disease anyways: 

Stress.

The best way to help your heart and fight stress is to minimize your exposure to social media and clickbait-y news outlets. Instead, balance your food choices between those that make you feel good now, those that make you feel even better later, and those that preserve our planet for future generations. You can't go too wrong that way. 

Stay careful out there folks ;). Thanks as always for reading,

Chris & Jorge