Why coconut oil is being demonized by the American Heart Association
You may have heard the news last week about new guidelines from on dietary fats from the American Heart Association (AHA). The part that made the most news around the globe is that coconut oil is unhealthy. It led to flashy newspaper articles as “Coconut Oil is as Bad as Butter”, “Coconut Oil is Unhealthy and Has Never Been Healthy”. Not only do these types of headlines cause increased confusion for the general population, for those of us who understand the nuances and politics behind the AHA’s statement it’s absolutely infuriating.
Why is that so? We present to you background information about why their latest advice, and their continued promotion of inflammatory foods like margarine (yes, seriously) should be taken with a grain of salt.
Who is the American Heart Association?
The American Heart Association was founded by a group of cardiologists in 1924. Its purpose is to fight heart disease and stroke by funding research, promoting certain public health policies, and providing education to the public. With heart disease being the leading cause of death in the United States as well as in most other countries, this is clearly important work, but their effectiveness is clouded by politics and a questionable interpretation of science. They have repeatedly promoted the replacement of saturated fat with omega-6 (inflammatory) polyunsaturated fats in order to reduce heart disease risk, a recommendation that simply has not been supported by current research.
Additionally, as with any non-profit organization, the AHA needs money. The best place to get money is from corporate sponsors, which for them include Subway, Cheerios, and Bayer. In addition, the AHA allows companies to purchase a “seal of approval”, known as the Heart Check Program, that can be put on certain food products that meet specific criteria. Some of these products include cereals and fruit juices. The products endorsed by this program are generally high in refined carbohydrates and contain a lot of sugar. Not to mention, only the companies who can afford to pay the fee for the “Heart Check” label are allowed to use it on their packaging. Even for a non-profit, that many corporate connections makes you question the validity of their claims and how they are analyzing the available data on heart disease.
Twisting scientific facts into something else
It’s not a surprise the AHA was able to spin the current research to match their overall message. Nutrition research is confusing because of a variety of problems with how research is conducted and analyzed. Here are some general reasons why it is almost impossible to conduct the type of double-blind, research study necessary to determine cause and effect in the area of nutrition:
Funding for research is provided by government organizations or corporations. This influences the type of research that is funded and the types of findings that come out of research as a result.
People lie about what they eat. Unless you lock people up and control every aspect of their diet, it is impossible to determine exactly what someone is eating. Food records, food frequency questionnaires, and interviews are all inaccurate.
Most nutrition research is based on epidemiological data that can only show correlations, or connections, and cannot determine causation between two variables.
In recent years, there have been 17 meta-analyses and systematic reviews conducted that have not found a clear link between saturated fat intake and heart disease. Of those that reviewed clinical trials on the subject, (instead of just epidemiological studies) not one found any connection between saturated fat intake, heart disease, and mortality.
Oddly enough, the AHA’s “in-depth analysis” only utilized four studies, some from the 1960s, to draw their conclusions. In their paper, they state only these four were “good enough” to be included.
Regardless of the AHA cherry picking data to support their recommendations, the bottom line is that there’s no strong data connecting saturated fat and cardiovascular disease. Therefore, demonizing coconut oil (or any other type of saturated fat) as the cause of heart disease is simply not supported by available research.
The AHA based a lot of their recommendations on the effect saturated fats have on increasing LDL cholesterol. But, they make no differentiation in their article between the size of the particles. It has been shown that large LDL particles do not increase risk of cardiovascular disease, whereas small, dense particles do. Also, it has been repeatedly shown that an increase in saturated fat intake does raise LDL, but only the large, fluffy kind, not the harmful dense LDL. Also, when we eat saturated fat, HDL cholesterol levels go up, which is protective to our hearts, reducing the risk of heart disease.
Health benefits coconut oil
There are several benefits outlined in the research about coconut oil in the diet, which are not mentioned in the AHA paper. Here are a few of the highlights:
– Coconut oil may actually help improve cholesterol and blood lipids
– Coconut oil has been found to help people lose weight and reduce waist circumference.
– Coconut oil has anti-microbial and anti-viral properties.
– Coconut oil is anti-inflammatory, helping reduce the risk of heart disease.
Lobbying by vegetable oil industry
Should we really all start following the AHA dietary advice? Think again!
The AHA highly endorses the “DASH” (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, which is a low salt diet that recommends you eat margarine. MARGARINE. Who still eats this? Maybe those that have been living under a rock?
To clarify, the AHA was the first authority globally to recommend lowering cholesterol by eating a diet high in vegetable oils and low in saturated fats. Coincidentally, the AHA has long received major financial support from the vegetable oil industry.
In fact, since its inception as a national powerhouse in 1948, the vegetable oil industry has heavily supported the AHA. Pharmaceutical companies that sell cholesterol-lowering drugs known as statins have also always heavily supported the AHA. And AHA advisories have always promoted these industries’ products.
According to well-informed cardiologists, vested interests have so corrupted AHA that honest doctors can no longer practise honest medicine. The AHA’s conflict of interests mean you cannot trust its advice.
There are other examples of the AHA’s habit of dishing out conflicted advice like chocolates. Statins are but one. The AHA endorses population-wide prescriptions of the cholesterol-lowering drugs even for low-risk groups. That’s despite significant evidence of serious side effects that outweigh benefit even for at-risk groups.
How has the AHA gotten away with declaring the opposite for so long? Simple. Because of funding that Prof Walter Willett and his “Harvard crew” receive from vegetable oil and grain industries.
While the production process of margarine has changed dramatically to reduce the trans fats, margarine is still an industrial product. Yet the AHA still promotes margarine as healthy because it contains polyunsaturated fats.
However, no one knows the effects of the chemicals created in the process of vegetable oil production. One of those is aldehyde, a known carcinogen.
Overall, take the recommendations of the AHA with a grain of salt. We don't need to throw out our coconut oil. Focus on eating real food, including coconut oil, butter and other traditional fats. Please do not avoid healthy fats in favor of margarine, as the AHA recommends. Real, whole, environmentally sustainable food will always be healthy, regardless of what the latest report may claim.
The only thing worth thinking over, is how coconut oil has recently been put on such a high pedestal, that it has become laughable. It is true coconut oil does have benefits for health, but it is NOT a miracle drug.
Thanks to the short and medium chain fatty acids, coconut oil is easier to digest and better yet, it doesn't turn rancid soon and can withsthand higher cooking temperatures (the non-virgin version).
However, high temperatures are not a good idea at all, due to the carcinogenic compounds that are being created in e.g. meat.
Also, whomever wants to lose weight, unvariably needs to ingest less calories than they need. While SCT and MCT fatty acids will not be stored as fat but used up as energy, it is still necessary to eat less.
In short, simply use common sense. If something sounds too good to be true, it probably IS.
Read more on why we shouldn't fully trust organisations like AHA or AMA (the American Medical Association)