The Complicated Nutrition of Coconut Oil and Saturated Fats

A new American Heart Association study is making the rounds on the Internet, claiming that coconut oil is “as unhealthy as beef fat and butter.” Scroll below the post itself, and you’ll find thousands of laughing faces, angry faces, and dissenters making comments like, “Well that’s okay, because all three are pretty darn good for you!” These days, there are two kinds of people on the Internet: those who wholeheartedly believe in eating tons of nuts and seeds, drinking bulletproof coffee every morning, and steering far, far away from gluten — and those who think anyone who falls into the former camp is absolutely nuts (get it? get it?!).

Coconut oil may be the ingredient of the moment, but this debate isn’t really about coconut oil. At a deeper level, it’s a culture war between two kinds of health-conscious people: those who believe fat is a holy grail macronutrient, and those who believe in the power of whole grains. There are sub-groups, too, like Paleo eaters and vegans. People in both camps can point to evidence that backs up their claims, but the truth is that there’s really no consensus… yet.

How Fat Became Fashionable

Until about 2005, Americans had for several decades been told by doctors, food experts, and the government to avoid fats. Eating an excessive amount of fats seemed to be connected with weight gain, and the consumption of saturated fats in particular was suspected to be linked to heart disease. But by the 1990s, given that heart disease had remained the number one cause of death in America and obesity rates had basically doubled, it had become apparent that something was wrong. The science behind fat-fear was wrong.

The first major trend to turn the tides about fats and carbs was the Atkins diet. This strict low-carb approach gained steam in 2003, but even at the height of its popularity, it was still seen as outrageous and, frankly, laughable to anyone who hadn’t experienced its effects first-hand. My parents were two of the first devotees, actually. I specifically remember hearing snide comments about how “Dr. Atkins died of a heart attack” (he didn’t) and how Atkins was actually a “bacon died” (it wasn’t).

Next came the South Beach diet, which was slightly more moderate, along with numerous other low-carb weight loss plans. These diets all garnered a reputation as fad diets, probably because they were so extreme in prohibiting even real-food carbohydrates such as those found in fruits and vegetables.

Another trend to influence the public’s attitudes about fats and carbohydrates was one that didn’t require limiting carbohydrates at all, but simply promoted the benefit of healthy fats alongside carbohydrates. The Mediterranean diet, initially conceived of back in the 1950s by none other than Ancel Keys, the fat-fear mongerer himself, was shown in a now-famous 2014 study to be the only diet proven to correlate with longer telomere lengths, a marker of healthy aging. Longer telomeres are associated with a reduced risk of not only heart disease, but all age-related problems, such as cancers, cognitive decline and metabolic disease. The buzz generated by the Mediterranean diet soon caused scientists to recommend that the public replace saturated fats (often found in animal products) with unsaturated ones, and particularly with monounsaturated fats like olive oil.

The Case for Saturated Fat

It wasn’t until fairly recently that nutritionists began recommending saturated fat as an actual health food. As low-carb lifestyles became even more popular, holistic approaches like the Paleo diet, which advocates for the consumption of protein and fats alongside naturally occurring carbohydrate-rich foods like fruits and sweet potatoes, came into fashion. And by 2014, we crossed into the newest frontier: ketogenic eating.

Spearheaded by research such as Dr. David Perlmutter’s in his book “Grain Brain,” the keto movement, which involves a high consumption of fats in proportion to protein and carbohydrates, came into the spotlight. “Keto Clarity” by Jimmy Moore and The Bulletproof Diet” by Dave Asprey (for the record: no, I am not advocating for putting butter in your coffee) posed an idea that until very recently was too scary to entertain: that fats, including saturated fats, should actually be the building blocks of our diet.

Of course, this was when coconut oil, a rich, whole-food source of saturated fat, started gaining steam. The research behind high-fat diets is more solid than you might think, but perhaps more importantly, the research against fats is a lot less solid than most people realize.

In fact, according to a Harvard School of Public Health review titled “Types of Dietary Fat and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: A Critical Review,” just one study out of thousands has ever found an association between saturated fat and heart disease. Just one. Meanwhile, a huge smear campaign against fat, one that has billions of dollars tied up in promoting “heart-healthy” choices low in fat and cholesterol, has been remarkably ineffective at improving public health.

“During the past several decades,” write the study’s authors, “reduction in fat intake has been the main focus of national dietary recommendations. In the public’s mind, the words ‘dietary fat’ have become synonymous with obesity and heart disease, whereas the words ‘low-fat’ and ‘fat-free’ have become synonymous with heart health… It is now increasingly recognized that the low-fat campaign has been based on little scientific evidence and may have caused unintended health consequences.”

Meanwhile, here’s what we do know: obesity, metabolic disorders like diabetes, and blood triglycerides do seem to be correlated with heart disease. And these problems are linked with the overconsumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates, not fats.

The Future of Coconut Oil

Coconut oil is 82 percent saturated fat. Back in 1970, when Ancel Keys authored the Seven Countries Study, he took note of the fact that countries with high rates of consumption of animal products (which are also mainly composed of saturated fats) tended to have poorer heart health. That’s where fat-fear, particularly saturated fat-fear, comes from.

But the Seven Countries Study was deeply flawed in that it didn’t take into account other factors, such as countries’ smoking patterns, exercise levels, or sugar consumption. It could’ve been the combination of fat intake and sugar that caused cardiovascular disease. It could’ve been an absence of healthy vegetables. It could’ve really been anything.

So when the AHA says that coconut oil is unhealthy because it is 82 percent saturated fat, those who have kept abreast of the latest scientific studies surrounding fat consumption are left shaking their heads. If there’s no evidence to back up the theory that saturated fat causes heart disease, then we can begin to consider some of the wonderful health benefits that saturated fats provide, such as improved hormonal health, liver health, satiety, and immunity.

Nutrition isn’t as black and white as click-bait headlines would make it seem. Furthermore, real foods don’t exist in a vacuum. A diet that’s consistently low in carbohydrates and high in whole, saturated fats from coconut oil and pasture-raised animal meats will probably have very different health effects than a diet that contains breakfast sausage, bacon, and burgers with toast on the side and hamburger buns to boot. Over time, it’s real-food diets that make for good nutrition, and saturated fats can and should be a component of those diets.

*Disclaimer: I’m not an RD (Registered Dietician), and you shouldn’t take this as medical advice! I’m a health and science writer who has written extensively on the current research regarding diet and health.

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