Nothing makes headlines like a fall from grace. The statement released last weekend by the American Heart Association reiterating its position that coconut oil is not healthy has stirred health reporting to a state of near-frenzy. “Coconut oil isn’t healthy. It’s never been healthy,” intoned USA Today. And more vividly, from the BBC: Coconut oil is “as unhealthy as beef tallow and butter.”
Much hinges, of course, on how one defines “healthy.” The recent AHA statement (which was not based on new research, but a summary reading of existing studies) notes that the saturated fat in coconut oil may raise overall cholesterol levels, including levels of so-called bad LDL cholesterol. It recommends consuming corn and peanut oil instead, citing research that doing so can lower cholesterol as much as using statins.
But not all cardiologists agree that high cholesterol is a primary driver of heart disease. According to Mimi Guarneri, MD, who spoke with Experience Life about heart health in 2016, “Studies have shown that 80 percent of the time, people who have heart attacks have the exact same total cholesterol as people who never have a heart attack.”
Guarneri and other functional-medicine health providers believe an overweening focus on cholesterol as the cause for heart disease is both misguided and dangerous, mainly because it ignores all other contributing factors, including an inflammatory diet, exposure to environmental toxins, and stress and tension, which often play a significant role.
“Elevated cholesterol is just a symptom,” functional practitioner Michael Stone, MD, told Experience Life. He seeks the underlying causes for a patient’s elevated cholesterol counts because it can spring from many different sources, including inflammation in the body. The body produces its own cholesterol for a variety of purposes (it’s a precursor for sex hormones, among other things), and if it’s producing too much, cutting back on dietary consumption won’t solve the underlying problem.
Guarneri also points out that there’s no “bad” cholesterol, but “it’s what happens with cholesterol that’s the problem.” If it gets oxidized in the body due to oxidative stress from insulin resistance or exposure to toxins or a long-simmering infection, then it can damage the heart.
Finally, some health professionals warn that replacing whole-food fats like coconut oil with refined vegetables oils (like corn oil) can increase inflammation, as these unstable fats quickly become rancid, which can contribute to more oxidized cholesterol in the body.
So has anything about the understanding of coconut oil really changed with the AHA statement? Not so much. Along with its saturated-fat profile, coconut oil still contains medium-chain fatty acids that are good for insulin regulation. As neurologist Terry Wahls, MD, points out in her Facebook response to the AHA statement, it’s still a fat that has been cooked with for centuries by Asian cultures who have notably low rates of heart disease and dementia. It still promotes satiety and tastes good. Like any nutrient-dense food, you need some of it. And this, by now, should not be news.