The coconut oil craze in the United States has propelled it to the forefront of health and beauty discussion. Not only promoted for its health benefit when consumed, but also its ability to soften skin, thicken hair and whiten teeth – it has become, seemingly, the single most important item in the pantry and medicine cabinet alike.1
But, emerging new research is casting a different light on the subject.
A new meta-analysis revealed that, in contrast to popular belief, coconut oil is not linked to lower rates of inflammation, glycemia, or adiposity. It is, in fact, responsible for increasing LDL cholesterol and considered among one of the more dangerous oils when compared to other fats.2
According to Deirdre Mattina, MD, with the Henry Ford Health Systems Women’s Heart Center in Detroit, MI, the confusion has stemmed from widespread claims that coconut oil has anti-inflammatory properties that are based on smaller studies from geographically isolated populations. Unfortunately, there is relatively little scientific evidence to support the claims.
“A lot of that we sort of took out of context and from what other components are available in those populations’ diets. And then people are just naturally always looking for something that’s marketed as being natural or different in processing, so I think they’re flocking to those things and maybe misinterpreting what healthy really is,” Mattina added.
The study’s senior author, Rob M. van Dam, PhD from the National University of Singapore, told TCTMD, an information resource produced by the Cardiovascular Research Foundation (CRF), that he and his colleagues launched the study because of how widely coconut oil is positively promoted for health benefit in the press.
The study included 16 international trials comparing the effects of at least two weeks of coconut oil consumption with other nontropical vegetable oils or palm oil on cardiovascular risk factors. The trials reported on body weight, body fat, waist circumference, fasting plasma glucose and C-reactive protein.
Findings revealed that when compared with these oils, coconut oil significantly increased total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, and HDL cholesterol but not triglycerides, body measurements, glycemia, or C-reactive protein.
The authors concluded that ‘the hypercholesterolemic effect of coconut oil intake is probably attributable to its high saturated fat content – consisting of about 90% saturated fat, which is higher than the proportion of saturated fat in butter or lard.’ Additionally, “about a quarter of coconut fat consists of the long-chain saturated fatty acids myristic acid and palmitic acid.”
In an accompanying editorial, Frank Sacks, MD of Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, Boston, MA, supported the findings and resulting recommendations saying that “coconut oil may be viewed as one of the most deleterious cooking oils that increases risk for cardiovascular disease.3”
The authors further concluded in an article summary that coconut oil holds no benefits with regards to ‘body fatness, inflammation, blood sugar, or heart health – but rather in large quantities can increase blood LDL-cholesterol concentrations, potentially increasing risk of heart disease.’
For van Dam and his colleagues, ongoing research will assess whether consuming coconut oil has any link to cardiovascular disease outcomes, not just markers of disease like serum cholesterol.
Conversely, new observational data shows that higher olive oil intake is associated with a lower risk of coronary heart disease and cardiovascular disease. The study authors note that olive oil consumption, though, is generally less in the US (where saturated fats and other plant-based unsaturated fats play a larger role in the diet) compared with European and Mediterranean populations – consequently less studied in this population group.
Author Marta Guasch-Ferré presented the findings at the American Heart Association’s EPI-Lifestyle 2020 Scientific Sessions, simultaneously publishing in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.4
Investigators found that subjects consuming more than half a tablespoon per day (>7 g/day) had a 14% lower risk of cardiovascular disease and an 18% lower risk of coronary heart disease over 24 years of follow-up. No link was seen between olive oil consumption and stroke.
Speaking with TCTMD, Guasch-Ferré pointed to additional findings for the US cohort, including important benefits to consumers if olive oil replaced approximately 5 g/day of margarine, butter, mayonnaise, or dairy fat. However, there was no difference between the benefits associated with olive oil consumption and those associated with intake of other nontropical, plant-based oils.
“The main message is that our results provide support for the recommendations to replace saturated fats and animal fat with unsaturated olive oil or other types of unsaturated fats,” said Gausch-Ferré.
When asked about controversies stemming from randomization of subjects in an earlier study on a Mediterranean diet supplemented with additional extra virgin olive oil, reducing major cardiovascular events by 31% compared with a fat restricted control diet (PREDIMED), which Gausch-Ferré co-authored several years earlier, the author underscored the important benefits found in both studies and the need for ongoing research on olive oil consumption.
According to the study summary in TCTMD, the benefits of olive oil may be partly explained by the replacement of saturated fats with unsaturated oil, a recommendation also set out in a recent scientific advisory on dietary cholesterol from the American Heart Association. Though study authors stressed that benefits specific to olive oil itself cannot be discounted, in particular, high oleic acid content, which the authors note is less susceptible to oxidation than other more unsaturated fatty acids.
“It has also been observed that olive oil can have favorable effects on endothelial dysfunction, hypertension, inflammation, insulin sensitivity, and diabetes,” the authors conclude.
The authors were also clear to state the importance in communicating olive oil benefits to the American population, as consumption habits vary greatly from those of the European population.
The benefits intrinsic to olive oil would need to be coupled with moderation and reductions in the types of fats typically consumed in higher quantities by Americans.
We at Carient Heart and Vascular have a robust diet program. Working collaboratively with our nutrition coaches, we are helping patients change dietary habits to fit their lifestyle and achieve long-term cardiovascular health and well-being. Learn more about structural heart disease and interventional cardiology. To schedule a consultation, please call 888-602-3339.
- Very Healthy Life. https://veryhealthy.life/11-benefits-coconut-oil/?utm_source=%2Bcoconut%20%2Boil&utm_medium=11BenefitsofCoconutOil&utm_campaign=adw_us .
- Neelakantan N, Seah JYH, van Dam RM. The effect of coconut oil consumption on cardiovascular risk factors: a systematic review and meta-analysis of clinical trials. Circulation. 2020;Epub ahead of print.
- Sacks FM. Coconut oil and heart health: fact or fiction? Circulation. 2020;Epub ahead of print.
- Guasch-Ferré M, Liu G, Li Y, et al. Olive oil consumption and cardiovascular risk in US adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2020;Epub ahead of print.