Going Nuts About Coconuts: What’s the Truth?

Going Nuts About Coconuts: What’s the Truth?

A little over two weeks ago now, the American Heart Association published a report advising against the use of coconut oil. Naturally, the coconut oil-loving world went into a frenzy, and judging from the huge amount of people who love the coco (myself included), this new advice didn’t exactly sit well with many.

In recent memory, coconut oil has become a “miracle food” of sort, with many people touting the benefits of its nutritional composition, particularly MCTs--or medium chain tryglycerides, which have been shown to aid in fat oxidation and weight loss. It also has a reputation as a stable oil that can hold up to high cooking temperatures; and having the essence of delicious coconut in your food is never a bad thing.

The wellness field has even touted the use of coconut oil in non-food applications. Use it in your cooking! Use it on your skin! Your relationship! Your bank account! This is summarized beautifully in this meme.

While I’m 100% sure there’s no effect of coconut oil use on the last two items, it is clear that coconut oil has cemented its place in the public conscience.

What was responsible for the AHA’s recent advice? Compared to other oils, coconut oil is rather high in saturated fat. Under the assumption that increased saturated fat consumption increases LDL cholesterol levels, and increased LDL cholesterol levels means a higher risk of suffering from cardiovascular disease, this means that coconut oil is actually bad for you.

The back and forth when it comes to nutritional trends is hard to keep up with. What’s healthy? What’s unhealthy? What are fats? What’s the difference between this fat and that? How do they impact cholesterol levels, and how is that linked to increased risk of developing cardiovascular disease?

For decades, health authorities have set recommendations to represent their views on specific nutritional topics. We’ve been told to avoid foods high in saturated fat like meat, dairy products, and specific plant base oils. More recently, we’ve been hit with trendy headlines like “Butter is Back” and “Coco-everything.” It wasn’t too long ago either that the US Government rescinded old guidelines to consume less eggs because of its high cholesterol content.

As it turns out, cholesterol consumption, especially of the HDL kind found in eggs, does not negatively affect cholesterol levels. Ironically, that same report that rescinded long-standing recommendations on eggs and cholesterol consumption, also warned against the consumption of high amounts of saturated fats. This is the same basis for the AHA’s most recent argument against coconut oil consumption.

Researchers have made vigorous attempts to pin down a cause-effect relationship when it comes to cardiovascular disease, and the following assumptions have taken hold. Elevated cholesterol levels in the blood are linked to cardiovascular disease -> saturated fat increases cholesterol levels in the blood, therefore saturated fat consumption = increased risk of cardiovascular disease.

But are these links more correlation than causation? Unfortunately health is not cut and dry. It’s not as simple as “push this button, and this result will occur with 100% certainty.”

Take this, for example. In 1961, the AHA recommended for the decreased consumption of saturated fat, for the well-known reasons listed above. The demand for foods high in saturated fats like milk and red meat plummeted in the years that followed. Meanwhile, the demand for carbs increased--those fat calories had to be replaced somehow.

And yet, these recommendations failed to stunt the increase in diabetes and obesity, a problem that still continues to this day. And hasn’t there been a low-carb diet movement going on for the better part of the 21st century now?

Confusing? I won’t disagree. It always seems like new nutrition advice is a constant and continuous reaction to the status quo. These days, carbs are bad. But tomorrow they might to be good again. In the 1960s, saturated fat was bad. But cutting it didn’t stop obesity and diabetes. So is saturated fat good again?

Science constantly changes, and it’s important not to sensationalize the results of studies for journalistic and click-bait purposes, nor is it wise to come to sweeping conclusions based on the results of those studies. Studies usually show nothing more than a specific result for a specific subset of people, and it’s important to note the methodology behind such investigations, their advantages, and their drawbacks. The goal of science is to spark level-headed discussion about these topics, that will inspire further investigation and questioning into perpetuity. It is a stretch to say that science is absolute and provides 100% of the answers; it is nothing more than a compass. This article here goes into far more detail about the strengths and limitations of science with regard to the AHA’s recent recommendations on coconut oil -  Saturated Biases: Where the AHA Advice on Coconut Oil Went Wrong.

When it comes down to it, we still do not know exactly how fat consumption affects body fat, weight, or even life and mortality in general.

Just like the medical field, the field of nutrition is constantly evolving, and there can sometimes be more factors at work than just the science. The Atlantic offers a perspective on these complex issues here: When Evidence Says No, but Doctors Say Yes. In summary, you might not need that surgery that the doctor is recommending, none the least because evidence says you might be better without it.

While I don’t believe that coconut oil is the miracle panacea that can fix your relationships or your bank account, I also don’t believe it’s as good or bad as mass media would have you believe. All I can advocate for and will continue to for is the consumption of whole, minimally-processed foods, with everything in moderation, and nothing in excess. And of course, you should be exercising and training hard too.