Hardly a week goes by that I don’t read in a newspaper, magazine, or book or hear on the television or radio that coconut oil promotes heart disease. So many people have the opinion that coconut oil causes heart disease that you would assume that there are numerous studies to substantiate this belief. The fact of the matter is that there are no studies that show that coconut oil promotes heart disease. You can search until you are blue in the face but you won’t find a single study that can prove that coconut oil causes heart disease.
I’m talking about natural, non-hydrogenated, non-adulterated coconut oil, the type that is normally eaten every day by millions of people worldwide as part of their normal diet. Some people have pointed out studies using hydrogenated or fractionated coconut oil combined with experimental (i.e., unnatural) diets as proof that coconut oil is harmful. These studies don’t show anything of the kind, they only show that oils that are chemically altered and combined with experimental diets lacking certain nutrients can possibly lead to health problems. That is no surprise. When you manipulate foods and alter their natural nutritional profiles anything can happen.
I recently had an experience that illustrates how these studies can be misinterpreted. I was speaking at a university on the merits of coconut oil. During my presentation I discussed the unfounded claim that coconut oil contributes to heart disease and referred to several studies backing my position. I explained how natural coconut oil does not have a harmful effect on blood cholesterol levels and that populations that use coconut oil as their primary source of fat have a remarkably low incidence of heart disease.
At the end of the talk I answered questions from the audience. In attendance were people who sincerely wanted to learn about coconut and a few who were skeptical, including some who were even oppositional. One member of the audience claimed to be a medical researcher. He was of the opinion that coconut oil caused heart disease. To back up his position he stated that researchers induce atherosclerosis in lab animals using coconut oil—proving that coconut oil causes heart disease and that I was wrong.
I don’t know if he was truly ignorant of the facts or was just trying to create opposition, but he brought out an interesting point that can cause confusion. It is true that researchers often incorporate coconut oil into diets used to induce atherosclerosis in lab animals. But it is not the coconut oil that causes the plaque buildup in the animal’s arteries. Atherosclerosis in these cases is caused by oxidized cholesterol fed to the animals. Oxidized cholesterol is not the same as the cholesterol we generally get in our foods or the type that is manufactured in our bodies. Oxidation chemically alters the cholesterol, making it toxic. When researchers feed oxidized cholesterol to animals, it damages artery walls causing atherosclerosis to develop in a relatively short amount of time, generally just weeks. Researchers dissolve powdered oxidized cholesterol in oil before feeding it to animals. The oil serves as a carrier. That’s its purpose. The reason coconut oil is preferred is because coconut oil is an excellent carrier oil and oxidized cholesterol dissolves easily in it. Any oil combined with oxidized cholesterol will promote atherosclerosis, even soybean oil or olive oil. Coconut oil is used primarily because it is easier to work with. It is the oxidized cholesterol that causes damage to arteries, not the carrier oil it is combined with.
When people read an abstract to a study and see that a combination of cholesterol and coconut oil was used to initiate atherosclerosis, they could mistakenly interpret that to mean that coconut oil promotes heart disease. These studies do not demonstrate that coconut oil causes atherosclerosis. It is the damaged cholesterol that is the culprit here. If coconut oil really did cause atherosclerosis, people eating the oil would develop heart disease. But there are no studies that can show a relationship between coconut oil consumption and heart disease. Every single published study on this topic shows a reverse relationship.
The Pukapuka and Tokelau island study provides a good example. Virtually the entire populations of both islands participated in the study. Researchers discovered that these people were getting as much as 50 percent of their daily calories from the consumption of coconut oil, yet they had no signs of heart disease. Even though their diet contained massive amounts of coconut oil, they were free of atherosclerosis.
Studies in the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, India, and elsewhere show that populations that rely on coconut oil as their primary source of fat have extraordinarily low incidence of heart disease. As these people abandon coconut oil in favour of other oils, heart disease increases. If coconut oil promotes heart disease, why does heart disease increase when coconut oil consumption decreases? This pattern is seen throughout the world where coconut oil has traditionally been used. You can’t say it is the diet in general that is always at fault because in many of these populations the diets have remained virtually unchanged, except for replacing coconut oil with processed vegetable oils and margarines.
Historically, heart disease was unheard of in populations that rely heavily on coconut oil. Heart disease has only become an issue here as coconut oil has been replaced by other oils. For instance, in Papua New Guinea, where coconut oil has been a primary source of fat in the diet, the very first heart attack death occurred in 1964. Prior to that, heart disease was unheard of. It was only after the introduction of processed vegetable oils that heart disease surfaced.
Experimental diets that induce atherosclerosis in lab animals combine oxidized cholesterol with coconut oil, amounting to about 5-10 percent of total calories. Studies generally last only a few weeks. In this time the oxidized cholesterol has caused enough damage for a measurable amount of atherosclerosis to build up in the animal’s arteries. In other words, these special diets initiate atherosclerosis in a matter of weeks. If coconut oil was the primary cause of this condition, anyone who consumes coconut oil would die of heart disease in just a few years. Yet people as old as 96 years of age who have consumed coconut every day of their lives have shown no evidence of atherosclerosis.
The saturated fats in coconut oil are unique. They are known as medium-chain triglycerides. Besides coconut oil, the next best dietary source of these special saturated fats is breast milk—nature’s perfect food. If the saturated fats in coconut cause hardening of the arteries and heart disease, why does nature put them in mother’s milk? It is completely illogical to believe that nature has formulated the perfect food to contain a deadly poison that would cause disease in a matter of weeks.
Human breast milk contains the same amount of saturated medium-chain triglycerides as the lab diets designed to produce atherosclerosis, but without the damaged cholesterol. Instead, it has natural or non-oxidized cholesterol, the type found in most of our foods. Infants, who can breastfeed for up to three years, do not develop atherosclerosis. Obviously, these saturated fats aren’t the cause of heart disease. If they were, the human race would have become extinct ages ago.
Some people, because of preconceived prejudices, fail to see the obvious. I challenged my critic to cite any studies that could show that coconut oil, without oxidized cholesterol, caused heart disease. He could not. So he reversed the challenge and asked me to show him studies that proved that coconut does not cause heart disease. I told him that I have already done that during the lecture and referred again to the Pukapuka and Tokelau island study which showed that even very large amounts of coconut oil in the diet has no harmful effect on the heart or circulatory system.
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