The American Heart Association wants to set the record straight: Coconut oil is not a health food, a panel of experts writes in a new AHA advisory statement. Nor is any type of saturated fat, the paper adds.
Writing in the journal Circulation, the authors acknowledge that recent studies have caused “confusion” about the potential health risks of saturated fat. But after reviewing the evidence, they say the Association’s longstanding recommendation—to eat fewer saturated fats and more unsaturated fats—remains one of the best ways to reduce the risk of heart disease.
In fact, they say, studies show that swapping saturated fat with polyunsaturated vegetable oil can reduce cardiovascular disease by about 30%. That’s similar to reductions typically seen with the use of statin drugs.
Saturated fats are found in meat, full-fat milk, and butter, and some tropical oils like palm and coconut oil. Other types of fat include poly-unsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, fatty fish, and corn and soybean oils) and mono-unsaturated fats (also found in nuts and seeds, as well as avocado and olive and canola oils).
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While the report doesn’t contain any new scientific findings, lead author Frank Sacks, MD, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says it was important for the American Heart Association to take a close look at the available data. “We wanted to respond to the misinformation—promoted by some scientists and some journalists—that casts doubt on sound nutritional science,” he says.
The group’s conclusion? The notion that saturated fat leads to heart disease, and that unsaturated fat prevents it, should not be up for debate.
Take coconut oil, for example. A recent survey found that 72% of Americans (and 37% of nutritionists) consider coconut oil a healthy food. “There’s no basis at all for that, and in fact we were trying to figure out where those claims came from,” says Dr. Sacks. “Coconut oil is pure fat—higher in saturated fat that other sources like palm oil or butter—and there’s nothing known about it that would mitigate the bad effects of saturated fat.”
The paper cites seven clinical trials in which coconut oil was found to raise LDL “bad” cholesterol just as much as butter, beef fat, and palm oil. Studies comparing coconut oil’s and other saturated fats’ direct effects on cardiovascular disease rates have not been reported, the authors note. But because high LDL cholesterol is a known cause of heart disease—and because coconut oil has “no known offsetting favorable effects”—the panel advises against its use.
Some studies have suggested that lauric acid, which makes up about half of coconut oil’s saturated fats, does have some unique health benefits: It’s antimicrobial, doesn’t break down at high temperatures the way other fats can, and may have metabolism-boosting properties. It also seems to boost levels of HDL “good” cholesterol, which may be protective against heart disease.
But Dr. Sacks points out that all fats raise HDL cholesterol, especially saturated fats. And the science on HDL is still unclear; recent research has shown that raising HLD levels doesn’t necessarily translate to a reduced heart-disease risk. “There is still a lot to discover in this field,” he says, “but we can no longer use changes in HDL to infer benefits or lack of benefits pertaining to heart disease.”
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Dr. Sacks insists that well-conducted research “overwhelmingly supports limiting saturated fat” to prevent heart and artery disease. Other experts argue, however, that saturated fat has been unnecessarily vilified, and say that cutting back on this one ingredient may not necessarily improve health.
People who replace saturated fats with carbohydrates or foods high in sugar, for example, don’t see reductions in heart disease risk. The new AHA paper acknowledges this finding, and that’s one reason the authors advocate for an overall health-eating pattern, like the DASH Diet or Mediterranean diet.
“A healthy diet doesn’t just limit certain unfavorable nutrients,” says Dr. Sacks. “It should also focus on healthy foods rich in nutrients that can help reduce risk, like poly- and mono-unsaturated vegetable oils, nuts, fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fish, and others.”