Sensational international headline “Coconut Oil is pure poison” says Harvard Doctor
While the latest research has radically changed the understanding of cholesterol and the essential role of healthy saturated fats, many medical professionals have not kept up to date and are unfortunately still continuing under the old faulty paradigm that the first signs of high cholesterol requires statin medication to prevent heart disease. The big business interests behind this have led to coconut oil and other tropical oils becoming collateral damage in the misinformation campaign to sell their cholesterol lowering drugs. The global popularity of Virgin Coconut Oil and the Keto / Low Carb High Fat Diets has threatened the very foundation of their anti cholesterol and anti saturated fat agenda's, read on to understand more.
Professor Karen Michels of Harvard made global headlines recently with a claim that coconut oil is pure poison and based her reasoning in her lecture because it contains almost exclusively saturated fatty acids, ones that can clog the coronary arteries and you can identify fats that contain large quantities of saturated fatty acids by checking to see whether they remain solid at room temperature, as is the case with butter or lard.
Low cholesterol won't stop heart disease, healthy cholesterol will
This misunderstanding about cholesterol and saturated fats is based on faulty science that began in the 1950’s from poorly performed observational studies, often basing their results on hydrogenated vegetable oils or hydrogenated coconut oil, altered to make it completely devoid of any essential fatty acids and high in trans fatty acids (TFA). Doctors had no idea about the dangers of trans fats in those days and recommended to replace butter with hydrogenated margarines (and healthy heart association logo’s can still be seen on most margarines today). Their data at that time was all based on studies of Caucasian populations consuming high intakes of saturated fats along with their standard Western diets, with low intakes of fish and, of course, virgin coconut oil was never studied.
Since that time the errors have been compounded and perpetuated. These studies were not performed on antioxidant rich virgin coconut oil currently consumed worldwide, yet here you have so-called medical experts unwilling to understand the vast difference between virgin coconut oil and hydrogenated “frankenfood” margarines high in trans fats or the traditional high saturated fat Western diet.
The traditional use of coconut oil
Let’s take a look at the cultures that have used coconuts as their predominant dietary fat source since their ancestors first appeared on tropical shores millennia ago. If coconut oil is indeed a poison there must be very clear evidence from studying the health of these cultures, where we expect to see high rates of cardiovascular disease, shortened lifespans and, if really a poison, then one would also expect a higher incidence of birth defects or cancers as well. Based on Harvard Professor Michels claim it is surprising that more than 1 billion people who live in South India, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and every tropical island along the equators have not died off centuries ago!
The below studies were performed on traditional cultures that use coconut products as their main source of dietary fat. As you can see in these studies cardiovascular disease tends to be rare and of course they are perfectly normal as per global health standards in every other way.
Polynesia: The first study1 done in 1984 looked at two Polynesian atolls whose diet was high in fats from coconuts and low in cholesterol as they ate mainly fish with little animal products which made them an ideal study group. The authors of the study concluded “Vascular disease is uncommon in both populations and there is no evidence of the high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect in these populations.”
Papua New Guinea: The next study2 was conducted in 1993 on the island of Kitava, Papua New Guinea. Their subsistence lifestyle, uninfluenced by western dietary habits is still maintained with tubers, fruit, fish and coconut as the dietary staples and margarine, dairy products and alcohol were absent in their diet. This study tested 151 males and 69 females aged 14-87 years with 76% and 80% smokers, and the study was followed up for over 20 years. Their conclusion after this long period was as follows “of the analyzed variables, leanness and low diastolic blood pressure seem to offer the best explanations for the apparent absence of stroke and ischaemic heart disease in Kitava. The lower serum cholesterol may provide some additional benefit. ECGs and surveys revealed no indications of heart attack, stroke or angina pectoris, again suggesting that ischemic heart disease was minimal or absent in this population.” They performed much better than the Swedish results they were compared against and also fascinating was that despite their very high proportion of smokers it that their diet was nullifying the worse effects of smoking on cardiovascular risk factors!
Sumatra, Indonesia: Next we go to Southeast Asia to look at a case-control dietary study in 2004 on the causative factors of coronary heart disease (CHD) among the coconut-consuming Minangkabau in West Sumatra, Indonesia3. Anyone who has ever enjoyed the wonderful cooking of “nasi padang” knows how rich their curries are in coconut milk and coconut fats are present in many of their dishes. The study conducted via 5 hospitals compared the diets of individuals diagnosed with CHD and apparently healthy outpatient counterparts without cardiovascular issues. Comparing the diets of both groups the results from this study concluded that “the intakes of total fat and saturated fat were not associated with a higher incidence of CHD but that the intake of animal food, total protein, dietary cholesterol and total carbohydrate were found to be predictors of CHD.” So this means that both those who had heart disease and those who did not consumed the same amounts of coconut products and the researchers pointed to other factors in their diet that were predictors of CHD, not saturated fats.
These examples of traditional cultures that consumed high amounts of coconut based saturated fats in their diet showed that in all cases the researchers concluded that the coconut and saturated fat component of their diets in no way contributed to a higher incidence of cardiovascular disease and seemed to protect them as seen by the very low incidence of cardiac arrest in traditional societies who have no exposure to alternative oils and margarines. These were not studies on Caucasians eating a high saturated fat Western diet or test subjects being given hydrogenated margarines but cultures that live under and rely upon the humble coconut tree for the fat content of their diet.
A recent clinical study comparing the effects of Coconut Oil, Olive Oil and Butter from the UK
A very well performed study last year sums up the effects of consuming Virgin Coconut Oil and lays to rest any lingering doubts from almost 70 years of falsified information or what is today known as “fake news”. This study was a randomized clinical study, not an observational study asking people what they ate for the past year, and as such is the gold standard of scientific research. It involves 94 middle aged men and women between 50–75 years of age, with no known history of cancer, cardiovascular disease or diabetes and not on lipid lowering medication. Each participant agreed to consume 50 gm per day of one of the three dietary fats for 4 weeks; Virgin Coconut Oil, Olive Oil or Butter to be substituted for the usual fats in their normal daily diet. All participants were recruited in the Cambridgeshire area, UK via British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the results were made into a BBC program and scientific study published in the British Medical Journal4.
The results produced the following results:
- LDL cholesterol, often referred to as the “bad” cholesterol, was increased by 10% in the butter group, with the olive oil group having no significant difference in LDL. However, for coconut oil LDL bad cholesterol actually decreased.
- HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol was increased considerably more by coconut oil than olive oil or butter.
- In only the 2 months that it was added to the subjects diets the Total Cholesterol to HDL ratio which is a more accurate measure of cardiac risk factors reduced twice as much for coconut oil than olive oil, while butter slightly increased the ratio (an indicator of increased risk).
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The researchers were obviously very surprised by the results which went against everything that they had been led to believe about coconut oil and concluded that we need to look beyond the label of just “saturated fats” and look at the individual fatty acids, in particular the medium chain triglyceride (MCT) Lauric Acid from coconut oil that behaves very differently to other saturated fats.
Their paper summarized it succinctly as follows: “two different dietary fats (butter and coconut oil) which are predominantly saturated fats, appear to have different effects on blood lipids compared with olive oil, a predominantly monounsaturated fat with coconut oil more comparable to olive oil with respect to LDL-C. The effects of different dietary fats on lipid profiles, metabolic markers and health outcomes may vary not just according to the general classification of their main component fatty acids as saturated or unsaturated but possibly according to different profiles in individual fatty acids, processing methods as well as the foods in which they are consumed or dietary patterns. These findings do not alter current dietary recommendations to reduce saturated fat intake in general but highlight the need for further elucidation of the more nuanced relationships between different dietary fats and health".
The actual science behind Coconut Oil and its effect on our lipid profile
In a nutshell, there are many fatty acids that come under the umbrella of “saturated fats”. Coconut oil is unique due to its high composition of medium chain fatty acids. Chief of these is Lauric Acid that makes up approximately 50% of coconut oil and is the fatty acid responsible for it becoming solid at room temperature (at temperatures below 24 C). Along with two the other important MCT’s known as Caprylic and Capric Acids, the total MCT’s in coconut oil makes up approximately 65% of the oil in total and 75% of the total saturated fats in coconut oil. Among the many unique properties of MCT’s is that they do not follow the regular route of fat digestion via the arterial system but are more easily digested than all other oils and fats and transported directly to the liver where they are used as energy. Coconut oil contains no cholesterol (only animal fats contain cholesterol) and by virtue of its fast metabolism to energy is the least likely of all fats to result in raised cholesterol and arterial cholesterol deposits. By the way, Lauric acid is also found in high concentrations in mother’s milk, where it functions to support early immunity and brain development.
Remember our Harvard Professor Michels warning that fats that become solid at room temperature will become solid in our arteries? This was her primary evidence that coconut oil is poison. This statement is a simplistic fallacy meant to instill fear and is not becoming of a Harvard Professor as it confuses all saturated fats as being identical, a mistake that should not be made by a health professional. Lauric acid is the reason why coconut oil hardens at room temperature and is a completely different saturated fat than found in animal fats that results in them solidifying at room temperature. Animal fats contain no MCT’s and dairy products, butter and cream only a very small amount. The principle saturated fat in lard and animal fats is palmitic acid, the same as palm oil, however unlike coconut oil and palm oil that are cholesterol free, lard contains cholesterol (0.1%) while butter is higher (0.2%) and eggs (0.4%).
Looking at the overall percentage of total saturated fats as the determination of whether a fat is good or bad can only be made by those with an out to date understanding in lipid pharmacology and unfortunately many medical doctors and “National Heart Associations” are at the top of this list. Others look to a more nefarious conspiracy and believe the reason for this vilification of saturated fats is actually not due to a misunderstanding at all but because they are in bed with the multinational pharmaceutical giants that produce the statin cholesterol lowering medications that are some of the largest earners in all drug categories globally. Thus any perpetuation of the saturated fat fear and cholesterol myth helps make these drug company shareholders very wealthy. To make my point, in 2011, Pfizer’s statin medication Lipitor was the world’s top-selling drug with annual sales of over 7 billion US dollars with numerous other statin drugs from other drug companies in the top 200.
The message from the Doctors, avoid coconut oil and take this pharmaceutical instead...
Cholesterol is an important building block in every cell of the body and essential for health and the animal foods we consume only provides around 20% while the body manufactures the balance 80% in the liver and intestines and indeed every cell in our body can produce cholesterol. High cholesterol levels alone are a very poor predictor for heart disease and for the past 20 years doctors have been grossly over-prescribing statin drugs routinely without doing other checks to confirm whether indeed any risks whatsoever are actually present.
Many excellent books exposing this cholesterol myth have been written by medical doctors brave enough to speak out against the abuse of statin drugs and these outline the drug-free options to achieve a healthy cholesterol balance. Responsible doctors today look at the ratio of Total Cholesterol to good HDL cholesterol as an indicator for or against taking action. A low Cholesterol to HDL ratio is an indicator of a healthy cholesterol balance and no intervention is required, despite seemingly high total cholesterol. As we saw in the study above, the total cholesterol to HDL ratio is one of the fastest indicators to improve after consuming coconut oil, especially if you use it to cook, replacing your regular supermarket polyunsaturated oils.
Triglycerides are another fat found in the blood that are also used to scare people away from eating saturated fats and coconut oil. Surprisingly for most of us to hear however is that the major source of triglycerides in our blood (that are subsequently stored as body fat) is not from fats like coconut oil but is made from the excess carbohydrates we consume and to a lesser extent, proteins and fats. This is why studies have shown that vegetarians, vegans and meat eaters alike have similar amount of triglycerides if they eat too many calories and no one diet predisposes to lower triglycerides as the body produces it from the foods that we eat anyway. The best way to lower triglycerides is not by medications but to follow a low carbohydrate diet, intermittent fasting and regular exercise.
Doctors have every technology on hand to deal with critical care situations but have scant knowledge on what constitutes a healthy diet to prevent disease in the first place
There’s a general historical trend that of all the sciences, medicine is often the last to adapt to new understanding as it is steeped in the pride of past accomplishments. In comparison, sciences such as physics and chemistry are in a constant state of growth, adaptation and hunger to understand and evolve. While modern allopathic medicine has made great strides in saving human lives in the area of critical emergency care and diagnostics it has made little progress in the area of disease prevention, nutrition and promoting health. Health cannot be measured as just the absence of disease but a state of vibrant health free from dependence on medication. It is quite common that someone whose health is stable as a result of medication to control blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol is given a clean bill of health from the perspective of modern medicine. As a result, modern medicine has a long way to go to promote health in its true definition. The grueling process of becoming a medical doctor leaves little time for an in-depth study of non drug health options, dietetics or lifestyle modifications other than the very obvious. So let’s hope that doctors ignorance in areas related to a healthy diet is just because they are too busy savings lives in critical care environments.
The agenda of Big Business is to sell their products by whatever means at their disposal
Then again, perhaps the conspiracy theorists are correct and it is in fact big business, in particular US and European pharmaceutical, processed food and agricultural lobbying interests that have been dictating all along what is good and what is not. For example, companies such as Coca Cola and soda companies (see here) fund health associations, Heart Health Associations, doctors and Government dieticians on a massive global scale. It is definite that no developing country or 3rd world tropical producer of coconut oil has deep enough pockets to take up a fight against these powerful forces of misinformation and faulty science, busy on directing attention away from carbohydrates and sugars to tropical fats like coconut oil and palm oil. This also includes the powerful US/EU seed oil lobby that seeks to limit the use of tropical oils like coconut oil and palm oil in favour of their polyunsaturated oils such as corn, soya, sunflower etc despite the science also being shown to be equally manipulated in their favour5. So whether we have a case of outright fabrication of data since the 1950’s, fudging studies to get the results they desired, or whether it is just the doctors and scientists deceiving themselves through sticking to scientific misconceptions, we may never know for sure. I believe that coconut oil will in the near future be prescribed by the majority of doctors for their patients to prevent heart disease and support metabolic health while processed foods and sugars will be taxed and regulated as the only solution to prevent cardiovascular disease and the global obesity epidemic.Select References
- Prior IA, Davidson F, Salmond CE et al. Cholesterol, coconuts, and diet on Polynesian atolls: a natural experiment: the Pukapuka and Tokelau island studies. Am J Clin Nutr 1981;34:1552–61. [Study]
- Lindeberg S, Lundh B. Apparent absence of stroke and ischaemic heart disease in a traditional Melanesian island: a clinical study in Kitava. J Intern Med 1993;233:269–75. [Study]
- Lipoeto NI, Agus Z, Oenzil F et al. Dietary intake and the risk of coronary heart disease among the coconut-consuming Minangkabau in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr 2004;13:377–84. [Study]
- Khaw KT, Sharp SJ et al. Randomised trial of coconut oil, olive oil or butter on blood lipids and other cardiovascular risk factors in healthy men and women. BMJ Open. 2018 Mar 6;8(3):e020167 [Study]
- Hamley S, The effect of replacing saturated fat with mostly n-6 polyunsaturated fat on coronary heart disease: a meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials 2017 Faculty of Health, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences, Deakin University, Australia. Published in Nutrition Journal [Study]