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Should You Eat Coconut Oil?


A couple of weeks ago, a Harvard professor came forth claiming that coconut oil is “pure poison!” My inbox was full of questions from clients asking if they should stop consuming it.

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Here is what we know to be true about coconut oil and its makeup. First, the latest science definitely supports moderate fat consumption (~ 20 to 50% of total calories per day) and moderate saturated fat consumption (say 10 to 15% of total calories).  That means one can easily overdo it on coconut oil.  For example, given a 2,000 calorie a day diet with no other sources of saturated fats, consuming a mere 3 tablespoons will get you to 15% of total calories from saturated fats.  This is one reason why I advise varying the fats you eat. Coconut oil is 80% saturated fat and pork lard is 39% saturated fat. Remember when lard was demonized and Crisco replaced it? (P.S. Don't eat Crisco - like EVER!)

Second, coconut oil’s fatty acids are mostly medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which are shorter fat molecules that the saturated fats we get from animal foods. The length of the chain makes a big difference in how fat is metabolized. Other fatty acids, like those in animal meats, are long chain. MCTs are more easily metabolized by the body, which is why they’re used in baby formulas and to nourish hospital patients. As such, they have very different biological effects, including plenty of beneficial ones like improving gut barrier health and reducing inflammation.  MCTs are digested and absorbed through the liver, and are available for quick energy. Most importantly, studies that pit coconut oil against butter, olive oil, sunflower oil etc. generally show that coconut oil is the most effective at raising our HDL "good" cholesterol, while having minimal to no effect on LDL "bad" cholesterol. And animals studies show that MCTs, coconut polyphenols and coconut phytosterols all lower CVD risk - good reason to source high quality oil like an unrefined, virgin coconut oil. There are extremely healthy societies in other parts of the world that consume coconut oil as their primary fat on a daily basis. But they also eat more plant-based meals, move their bodies more regularly and don’t eat as much processed, sugary foods as we do in the US.

Lastly, we have to consider the science of why we became so afraid of saturated fats in the first place. We have the diet-heart hypothesis of 1953 by Ancel Keys to thank for this. His hypothesis proposed that dietary fats, including cholesterol, cause heart disease. He used his bias to prove his theory and left out copious amounts of data from his research that now shows there is no correlation between fat consumption and dying from heart disease. New research confirms there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD. In fact, in Dr. Campbell-McBride’s book, Put Your Heart in Your Mouth, she shares hundreds of peer-reviewed studies that disprove his hypothesis. I highly recommend you read this book if anyone in your family has heart disease or is on a statin.

I don't agree that coconut oil is "pure poison".  But, that doesn't mean that I think we should be eating spoonfuls straight out of the jar. Coconut oil is a great high-heat cooking oil, perfect for stir-fries and pan sautéing. But, I also like using ghee or clarified butter for high heat cooking too. I use extra virgin olive oil or flaxseed for salad dressings and some nut oils for certain recipes. On the never list should be soybean, canola, corn, cottonseed, and hydrogenated oils. These are mostly known as "vegetable oils." Stear far away from these!

Most importantly, limiting your sugar intake along with refined flour can improve your health immensely. Inflammation is the root of CVD and it can be prevented with the right dietary and lifestyle protocols.

Cholesterol - Good, Bad or Protective?

For the past 9 months, I have been studying, reading, learning and absorbing so much nutrition information that my head has almost exploded a few times. I'm immersed in my 3rd nutrition school, getting certified in Nutritional Therapy. Just a few weeks are left! The deeper I dig, the more concerned, agitated and passionate I get. The study of nutrition has evolved so much in the last twenty years, but unfortunately, some of it we got very wrong. One of those areas revolves around cholesterol and fats - saturated in particular.

In the late 1950's, Dr. Ancel Keys proposed that dietary fats, including cholesterol, cause heart disease. He created charts showing this correlation in six countries (but the data was from 22 countries). He carefully selected out those six countries that proved his theory. But when all of the data from all of the countries was added back in, the correlation disappeared! This is called "selection bias." You can pretty much prove any theory you have when you manipulate data. 

Today we have hundreds of scientific studies that disprove Key's Diet-Heart Hypothesis. There are books (The Big Fat Surprise, Put Your Heart in Your Mouth), hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific studies and papers from all over the world disproving this outdated theory. Yet, still today, millions of Americans are being told not to eat saturated fats or animal fats and to keep their cholesterol at dangerously low levels or even put on cholesterol-lowering drugs. I was one of those people. I ate fat-free or low-fat foods for dozens of years and I had high cholesterol.

So, what is cholesterol? What does it do for our bodies? SO much! First, our brains are made of about 8-22% cholesterol - it requires cholesterol to function. Every single cell in our bodies needs fats or cholesterol to create the phospholipid bilayer. Remember science class - those cell membranes are fat. Cholesterol is also needed to make steroid or sex hormones, like adrenal hormones and reproductive hormones. It's also a precursor to Vitamin D and is converted in the liver to bile - which is necessary to digest fats.  When you have an infection or wound or incision from surgery, cholesterol is shuttled to the site via a lipoprotein to begin the healing process. It's also active at any signs of infection or inflammation. So if your cholesterol is "high" you have to ask why or where is the inflammation my body is trying to heal from. Not medically lower it! Cholesterol is protective! Cholesterol is made by the body and our diets only contribute about 15-20% of it. If we eat more, the body will make less and vice versa. But, if we chemically prohibit the body from being able to make more, our whole health will suffer.

What is high cholesterol? This argument is still being discussed, but most functional medicine doctors agree that it's about balance and quality of the various cholesterol markers in the body. Now, if you have super high triglycerides (triple digits) and your LDL vs. the HDL markers are way out of balance, then you need to address some lifestyle factors. Are you smoking, sedentary, eating hydrogenated fats and rancid vegetable oils? Then, yes, your cholesterol will be unhealthily high. You don't really get the full picture of your cholesterol numbers unless you get an expanded VAP cholesterol panel done with a doctor. For example, I had two conventional doctors want to put me on a statin (cholesterol-lowering medication) for years, but I declined. Then, when I saw a functional medicine doctor, she ran the full panel. Originally, I did have elevated triglycerides, but that was because I was on the pop-tart, ding-dong, skim milk, cereal, and bread diet. Once I got rid of ALL of the high-fructose corn syrup and refined foods from my diet, my triglycerides fell into a super healthy range of 44!
Now, the full VAP panel revealed that while my overall cholesterol numbers were "high" at 228, my particle size was low and my fats were fluffy and buoyant. This showed that I did NOT need a statin and putting me on one could have done more damage to my body in trying to heal from autoimmune disease. Knowledge is such power and having access to the right medical tests is priceless!
It also angers me now to hear that many doctors are putting the elderly on cholesterol-lowering meds as a prophylactic. This means as a preventative, but to what? Wanna know how memories are made? Scientists have found that synapse formation is entirely dependent upon cholesterol. Without the presence of this fat, we can't form synapses or remember anything. Do you have a loved one with memory loss and also on a statin? I do and it's infuriating.

So, what can you do if your cholesterol is "high" or you have a risk of heart disease?

First and foremost, if you smoke, seek support to stop immediately. You must address your diet and remove high-glycemic foods like refined flours, sugars (real and artificial), remove rancid oils and foods with hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils - READ those food labels. Add in fiber-rich foods, leafy greens, berries, mushrooms and grass-fed meats. Eat real butter, coconut oil and ghee. Don't use inflammatory vegetable oils, like canola, soybean and corn oil. Lower the amount of grains you eat. We don't need bread or crackers at every meal. Movement of some kind is critical to keep your lymph fluid clean. Exercise pumps our lymphatic system and helps move out toxins. Hydration is critical for so many bodily functions. Move away from dehydrating beverages like soda, coffee, alcohol and diurectic drugs (work with your doctor).

Theses can seem like simplistic, easy changes that you may already know, but putting them into action is difficult. I know because I was there. It took me a year to create the change that I needed to lose 50 pounds and reverse the disease in my body. It's something I work on every day.

If this is something you would like to work on, let's chat.