Cracking the coconut and saturated fat controversy!

If you are one of the many folks who recently tossed olive oil in favor of coconut oil, read on… you definitely do not want to miss this one…

Is saturated fat the real culprit? The relationship between saturated fats and an increased risk of heart disease has been well established in the medical literature. In March 2014, however, a systematic review and meta analysis published in the Annals of Internal Medicine muddied the waters, suggesting that there was no evidence linking saturated fat to heart disease. It concluded, “Current evidence does not clearly support cardiovascular guidelines that encourage high consumption of polyunsaturated fatty acids and low consumption of total saturated fats”(1).

Media reaction: A media frenzy ensued with popular media articles such as the NY Times calling for the return of butter and other saturated fats. In my own practice, I encountered patients who were getting increasingly confused and sadly disillusioned with all the mixed messages they were receiving. As it turns out, the study was deeply flawed, and was greeted with staunch opposition. One expert, Dr. Walter Willet, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, called the findings into question (1).

What are we substituting for saturated fats? What’s important to note here is the kinds of foods that we are substituting for saturated fats, as we knock them out of, or at least limit their intake in our diets. Most folks do not simply eliminate saturated fats in their diet. They replace them with something else to keep the calorie intake consistent. When these fats get replaced with refined and processed carbs (think fat-free animal crackers or fat-free pretzels), the subsequent spike in blood glucose can release a large amount of insulin from your pancreas, raise a form of fat in your blood called triglycerides and lower your healthy or HDL cholesterol. Thus the replacement of saturated fats with refined carbohydrates can be even more  detrimental to health.

Butter contains approximately 68% saturated fatty acids and is considered a form of saturated fat. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

Butter contains approximately 68% saturated fatty acids and is considered a form of saturated fat. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

On the flip side, when you replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats (mono and poly), this can  favorably impact your cholesterol levels-i.e. lower LDL (lousy cholesterol) and raise HDL (2). (As an example, you may want to start sautéing vegetables in olive oil as opposed to drizzling them with butter.)

Another food that has been touted by the media most recently as the next super food, is coconut. Coconut’s claim to fame may have come about because more than half of the fatty acids it contains are medium chain fatty acids called MCTs (the fatty acid chains in MCTs have between 8  to 12 carbon atoms). Recent studies show that MCTs are more readily oxidized by the body and hence not as easily stored as fat, compared to LCTs or long chain triglycerides. This confers a distinct advantage for those of us who are eternally fighting the battle of the bulge, and who would like to lose weight. What is interesting about MCTs is that they are able to bypass a metabolic route in the body that other fats such as olive oil cannot (3).

91% of the fat in coconut is saturated, far outstripping butter at 68%.

91% of the fat in coconut is saturated, far outstripping butter at 68%. © Copyright July 2015, Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

Eager to cash in on coconut’s many purported benefits, food manufacturers started adding coconut and coconut oil to a variety of commercial products such as spreads, smoothies and creamers, thus fueling a coconut propaganda that had a lot of gullible consumers making a bee line for coconut based products.

However, the studies in question contained MCTs with eight and 10 carbon fatty acid chains and not 12 carbon fatty acids. Since almost half of coconut oil (44%) consists of  12 carbon fatty acids and 16% contains 14 carbon fatty acids, the results were not directly applicable to coconut oil (4). Besides, at about 91% saturated fat, coconut oil has the dubious distinction of containing the highest amount of saturated fat among all oils, outstripping even butter which contains about 68%. Saturated fat raises HDL, but unfortunately raises LDL too, so at this time, experts recommend that consumers use coconut oil sparingly.

Chew on this: That being said, small amounts of saturated fats are acceptable (between 7 to 10% of total calories), which amounts to about 140-200 calories per day on a 2000 calorie diet. Since fat yields 9 calories/gram, that is about 15-22 grams of saturated fat per day.  A tablespoon of butter provides 7 grams of saturated fat,  and a 1/2 cup serving size of some brands of ice-cream can provide a mind-blowing 10-12 grams of saturated fat, demonstrating how easy it is to plow through your allowance quickly if you ate those foods. If you thought that was bad, coconut oil tops both these products with a whopping 12 grams of saturated fat in just one tablespoon!!!

Coconut, a very common ingredient in South East Asian curries contains the highest amount of saturated fat amongst oils. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

Coconut, a very common ingredient in South East Asian curries contains the highest amount of saturated fat among oils. © Copyright 2015 Sangeeta Pradhan, RD, LDN, CDE

Moral of the story : The current scientific consensus is that we replace saturated or trans fats in our diets with unsaturated fats. Experts advise emphasizing mono unsaturated fats from olive oil or whole plant fats such as nuts, avocados, or PUFAs (polyunsaturated fats) such as omega-3 fatty acids from fatty fish, walnuts and flaxseed. Replacing saturated and trans fats with refined carbs will adversely impact cholesterol as well as triglycerides in your blood. Although small amounts of coconut may be acceptable, as in those amounts coconut oil could be worked into one’s saturated fat allowance of 7-10% of total calories, we would want to think twice before sprinkling coconut in every recipe or smoothie.

At the end of the day, whole foods and dietary patterns count, not isolated nutrients. Based upon this, a dietary pattern that emphasizes whole foods with fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, olive oil, nuts and fatty fish such as a Mediterranean style diet might be the ticket to optimal health.

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Please consult your doctor or registered dietitian for recommendations tailored for your unique needs.

About Sangeeta Pradhan RD, CDE

Hi there! Welcome to my blog! If you are confused with all the conflicting messages you get bombarded with every day on carbs, fats, proteins, gluten and anything you can think of related to nutrition, look no further! The purpose of my blog is to cut through all this clutter, utilizing scientific, evidence based guidelines to help you, the consumer, navigate the complex, dietary landscape, and thus empower you to make informed decisions.
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16 Responses to Cracking the coconut and saturated fat controversy!

  1. Linda says:

    Great info! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks, Linda. Glad you found this helpful!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Cool. So a little coconut oil is good. Very little. As part of a healthy mix.

    Have studies actually shown the link between coconut oil and high levels of LDL or is it just assumed that all saturated fats raise LDLs, including coconut oil? Cheers —

    Liked by 1 person

  4. PS — Tweeted this on Twitter.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. That is an excellent question! Thank you very much for asking.
    There have been some short term studies on coconut oil, but it is not completely clear how it impacts heart health, per Walter Willet, an authority on nutrition, from the Harvard School of Public Health.
    To your point, there was a study conducted in Malaysia that showed that coconut oil raised Total Cholesterol, HDL and LDL cholesterol compared to olive oil.
    As mentioned in this post, it is also important to note what we replace saturated fatty acids with as we reduce them from the diet. If we inadvertently increase intake of refined carbs that also contain partially hydrogenated oils, this can lead to increased triglycerides, LDL, and decrease the “healthy” HDL. Experts agree that healthful, unsaturated, rather than saturated fats should be emphasized in the diet as they have beneficial effects on lipid profiles.
    Also, as mentioned in other posts and as you correctly observed, it is the whole dietary pattern that counts, not just isolated nutrients. Being a plant based product, coconut has some other redeeming factors in addition to the fact that it raises both HDL and LDL. Thus there is likely room for small amounts of coconut oil in the context of an overall healthy diet or eating pattern, as long as we do not get carried away given the overall evidence…
    Hope this helps and thanks for posting.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you so much! I am honored!


  7. dgkaye says:

    Fascinating article. Nice to connect here. Thanks for visiting my blog, or I may not have found you. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Likewise. Thank you so much for your kind comments, Debbie. So glad you liked the article.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. gaiainaction says:

    Im very happy that you visited my blog, now that I have found you, I have already read some very interesting information. Especially the info on coconut oil. thank you very much.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. You are so very welcome! So many folks have been indiscriminately incorporating coconut into everything. While small amounts as part of an overall healthy diet are of course perfectly acceptable…my intent is to just get us to “look before we leap” and eat more mindfully. Appreciate very much the great feedback and for stopping by:))

    Liked by 1 person

  11. gaiainaction says:

    Thank you sangeeta.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. The pleasure is all mine:)

    Liked by 1 person

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