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Coconut oil has hogged health headlines this past week, thanks to the announcement from the American Heart Association, the AHA, warning people that eating coconut oil is terrible for cardiac health. And yet, Pacific cultures in South East Asia – like in coastal India, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka – have used coconuts liberally in their diet for centuries and lived long and healthy lives.
Before we jump in, let’s make one thing very clear – we have no association with any Coconut Oil manufacturer or Coconut Research Council funded by manufacturers anywhere. We’ve looked at the research, the traditional uses of eating coconut oil and what leading M.D.s on either side of the argument have to say and this is our take.
The AHA has continued to maintain that saturated fats – including butter, lard, ghee and coconut oil – are bad for your heart and for your overall health.
What has changed is that in the past 5 years or so, more and more nutritionists and medical doctors are openly recommending coconut oil to patients for a variety of illnesses, from Alzheimer’s to adrenal fatigue – and they are seeing the results. So, the AHA decided it was time to scare people yet again. Eating coconut oil is terrible for your heart health and will clog up your arteries.
So here’s our take. First up, we love all saturated fats and believe they are crucial for human health. We believe that all of us should eat healthy fats (read saturated, mostly). Coconut oil is the most saturated fat among the naturally occurring fats, with fat content that is anywhere between 85 and 92%. Traditional coconut-growing cultures have given fresh coconuts and everything in them – the tender coconut water, coconut milk and cold pressed virgin coconut oil – a place of pride in their diet, both for nutrition and for health. When it’s of the right quality and is consumed in the right quantities, it leads to great health.
Coconut oil does not cause heart disease or increase the risk of heart disease. People living along the South Pacific, in countries like India, Thailand, Malaysia and Sri Lanka have thrived on coconuts for centuries.
There was a study conducted in 1991 in Sri Lanka, that studied over 200 members of a tribe that lived deep in the interiors of the island. They relied on coconuts as a major part of their diet. Each person consumed 120 coconuts per year on average. That’s over 30 quarts of coconut oil right there! And yet, when researchers studied them using the same modern health yardsticks and parameters, they found these folks had zero cardiac disease risk. How could this be?
If the AHA is to be believed, coconut oil is the Queen of Evil Saturated Fats, with the highest percentage of saturated fat. How could people who consumed it for breakfast, lunch and dinner have no cardiac disease risk?
Unfortunately, most of the studies that link coconut oil to elevated risk of heart disease use something called partially hydrogenated coconut oil in their research. Partial hydrogenation is a chemical process that degrades the nature of the oil, leaving it very different from the original Virgin Coconut Oil or VCO, which is what traditional cultures use as health food. Dr. Thomas Brenna, Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell University revealed this fact in an interview to the New York Times a few years back.
The truth is also that medical doctors, like Dr.Mark Hyman and Dr.Frank Lipman have come out strongly in defense of coconut oil after the AHA news piece because they have seen its many benefits in clinical practice and in research studies.
Coconut oil has proven to be beneficial to people suffering from Alzheimer’s and people suffering from adrenal fatigue; readers will please note that both of these claims are from medical doctors using coconut oil with scores of patients in the clinic, not from double blind placebo studies. The mechanism of how coconut oil might be helping prevent Alzheimer’s has been studied, but there are no direct trials completed successfully with Alzheimer’s patients. However, the doctors recommending it to their patients figure that it’s a food, used for centuries, and therefore there is no harm in trying it (within dose limits), even while we wait for lab research to prove effectiveness.
Where it comes to coconut oil helping people lose weight, there is clearer evidence. Studies show that the Medium Chain Triglycerides or MCTs, stuff that the coconut oil is full of, helps boost metabolism and lose weight. Coconut oil also has lauric acid, which has anti-biotic and anti fungal properties, which again finds evidence in research. Traditional south east Asian people also claim that they are able to ward off food-borne digestive infections so much better when the diet is rich in coconut. These countries have historically been more prone to food-led infections due to poorer standards of hygiene and warm climates that promote bacterial and fungal growth.
Coconut oil, when applied on skin, has shown amazing results “in rehydrating the skin and reducing bacteria” in people suffering from atopic dermatitis. The shining skin that people in tropical regions often enjoy may be a result of not just the omega 3 from the fish in their diet, but could also be due to consumption of coconuts in their diet and regular application of coconut oil on their skin.
The practice of swishing a tablespoon of coconut oil around in your mouth every morning is called oil pulling. It’s been finding a lot of favor recently; thanks to the host of health benefits it seems to give people. What’s amazing is that it has some backing in science too. For things as varied as dental plaque and gingivitis to better heart health and sleep, pulling coconut oil seems to help.
Our final words? We’re not touting coconut oil as a cure-all. We are merely saying that it has shown actual health benefits – traditionally, in the hands of functional medicine doctors and in preliminary research studies.
It’s a wonderful cooking medium and a great addition to your diet. It is NOT evil and it is NOT an enemy of cardiac health. You do need to make sure it’s the right quality – virgin, cold pressed, organic and fresh is the best.
Do write in to us and tell us your health experiences with coconut oil. Wish you vibrant health and well being.