Bad Press: Does Coconut Oil Really Promote Heart Disease?

The American Heart Association made waves last summer when it issued a report condemning coconut oil as a promoter of cardiovascular disease. Coconut oil devotees across the world were openly skeptical, but for the average American, the AHA’s position caused doubt and confusion. They had been told that coconut oil was a healthy alternative to processed or grain-based oils, and now the vaunted American Heart Association was saying just the opposite. Many swapped their naturally-sourced coconut oil for corn or canola oil, as the AHA suggested. After all, wouldn’t the premiere cardiac-health-promoting organization in the most medically advanced nation in the world know best?

Well … not necessarily. There are several good reasons to view the AHA’s recommendation with a critical eye:   

  • A Lack of Objectivity? While the American Heart Association has cultivated a lofty reputation as a dedicated and impartial consumer watchdog, in practice it’s primarily a trade organization that receives a large portion of its funding from corporate donations. Yes, the AHA is legally a non-profit, and ostensibly dedicates itself to the mission of improving cardiovascular health for all Americans. It’s difficult, however, not to question the AHA’s objectivity when you consider that their official recommendations tend to heavily favor the products sold by their largest sponsors and donors. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the coconut oil industry isn’t one of them—but the list does include agrochemical giant Monsanto and pharmaceutical manufacturers Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Novartis, and Sanofi.)
  • No Retreat, No Surrender. The AHA has known the role of sugar in promoting and worsening heart disease for decades. Yet when the AHA began its campaign to encourage low-fat diets for prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease (CVD), they appeared to inexplicably ignore the implications of the food industry’s strategy of compensating for the loss of flavor inherent in creating reduced-fat or fat-free versions of various foods by adding ever-increasing amounts of  sugar. As a result, rates of obesity skyrocketed, as did rates of cardiovascular disease. The American Heart Association to this day has never addressed the massive harm suffered by the general public as a result of its failure to address this issue. In fact, the AHA still allows products with up to 2+ teaspoons of sugar per serving (or 5 teaspoons for yogurt!) to receive its official “Heart Check” label that supposedly certifies a food as heart-healthy—for a fee, of course. Could this refusal to take action to counter the deleterious effects of sugar have anything to do with pressure from corporate sponsors? When you note that official AHA policy prohibits corporate partnerships with tobacco companies but explicitly approves partnerships with candy and soda companies, one has to wonder.
  • Moving the Goalposts. The American Heart Association has long championed a diet that limits saturated fats like the ones found in coconut oil, but has sometimes failed to address two facts: First, that replacing saturated fats with refined sugar and carbohydrates can be detrimental to health in its own right (as discussed above); and second, that there’s conflicting data about just what role saturated fats actually play in the development or exacerbation of CVD. While some research shows a reduction in rates of CVD when saturated fats are replaced with poly- or monounsaturated fats, others either show no effect or demonstrate that the effect is reversed when the saturated fats in question come from plant or animal sources. There’s some real-world support for the idea that all saturated fats aren’t created equal, considering that many indigenous groups who consume diets high in coconut oil and have lower-than-average rates of heart disease.
  • Cholesterol: A Misunderstood “Monster”. The entire goal of limiting saturated fat is to lower cholesterol, but not all cholesterol is unhealthy. In fact, the human body needs cholesterol to function properly, and healthy levels of cholesterol are especially critical to brain function. As indicators of risk for CVD, neither total cholesterol nor the total level of LDL (“bad” cholesterol) necessarily has the best predictive value. Although many doctors fixate on those two numbers (and pharmaceutical companies who are also AHA sponsors are quick to encourage use of their statin drugs when those numbers are “too high”), there may be a stronger correlation with CVD risk among the following three factors: high triglyceride levels, lower levels of HDL (“good” cholesterol), and the type of LDL particles—NOT strictly the amount of them—found in your bloodstream. Smaller, denser LDL particles appear to be more likely to clog arteries, while larger, more diffuse particles don’t seem to adhere to blood vessel walls in the same manner.  Quite a bit of research indicates that naturally-sourced saturated fats such as coconut oil are associated with increased HDL counts and increases in mass of LDL particles. All of this would indicate that judicious use of coconut oil is not just unlikely to be harmful to your heart, it could potentially have a protective effect against CVD.

So what’s the final analysis? As always, you should do your own research. While the American Heart Association’s suggested alternatives weren’t ALL bad (at least in the case of olive oil), their assertion that grain-based and/or heavily-processed oils that are high in inflammatory Omega-6 fatty acids are better for your heart than a clean, naturally-derived oil such as coconut oil is open to interpretation, to say the least.

Many holistic doctors take a moderate stance—they say that coconut oil can be bad for you, but only if it’s overused or combined with an otherwise unhealthy diet. As long as you’re not downing coconut oil by the cupful or chasing it with sugar and complex carbs, they say there’s no reason to shelve it and plenty of good reasons not to. Until the research is more conclusive, this seems like a logical approach.

As for the American Heart Association, we’ve just scraped the tip of the iceberg concerning the discrepancies in some of their “heart healthy” criteria, so there’s plenty more to discuss—and a lot of it may shock and even anger you. Stay tuned as we explore these “Matters of the Heart” further during the month of February!