Coconut oil, the healthy rage that solves 99% of our problems, is in the news again. But this time it’s a shameful accusation stating that coconut oil is not healthy at all, and never was!???
Say whaaaat? The recent article in USA Today tells us that coconut oil is a saturated fat (yes… did they just figure this out now?). It goes on to remind you that saturated fats can raise your LDL cholesterol so you should not eat more than 6% of your daily calories of this type of fat. Here we go again: the fat-shaming game for the sake of your cholesterol. While the author hints that not all evil is avoided by cutting saturated fats – in fact the culprit lies in sugar, refined carbs, and empty calories – they (again) miss the point on what makes a bad fat bad. Which is not the saturated vs unsaturated characteristic, but rather which one is more prone to oxidation, and why that’s what you should be concerned about.
Oxidation in your body’s cells causes damage. Oxidative damage namely. This happens because of free radicals which are the unfortunate by-product of processes where energy like heat and/or light is released. Namely the two factors that destroy unstable fats (=unsaturated) more easily than stable fats (=saturated). This has to do with their different molecule bonds, but I won’t bore you with that right now. What you need to remember is that oxidized fats are what harm your health, so avoiding rancid, oxidized oils is key. More on how to do that in a bit.
First, let’s set some things straight on the whole saturated fat vs your cholesterol fear mongering that they based this coconut oil article on.
Not all saturated fats are created equal.
Saturated fats have gotten the worst reputation when it comes to heart health. While it’s true that excess consumption of animal fats diet can increase total serum cholesterol, it is not THE cause for cardiovascular disease. What’s dangerous is oxidized saturated fat and a high carb/sugar diet lacking whole foods rich in antioxidants.
Yes, coconut oil is a mostly saturated fatty acid (around 85-90%). But let’s not compare apples to oranges here. Saturated fat becomes dangerous when it’s oxidized (rancid) or it contains higher levels of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids as found in corn/soy fed animal fats.
Those omega-6’s are also abundant in processed vegetable oils – the exact oils that this flaming article recommends you use to replace the “dangerous” coconut oil. If there’s one thing you remember from my post here, let it be this:
Most unsaturated vegetable oils are not a safe replacement for coconut oil because they are prone to harmful oxidation, especially when heated. They are also often already rancid, and too high in inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. And in the case of corn-, and canola oil, those are most likely from genetically modified seeds, doused in pesticides.
Saturated fat from grassfed animals as well as raw and organic dairy, provide more health benefits than harm to combat inflammation, hypertension and heart disease. For example, butter provides good amounts of short- and medium-chain fatty acids, which support immune function, boost metabolism and have anti-microbial properties. Grass-fed butter also provides the perfect balance of omega-3 and omega-6 fats.
Grassfed is the key though: grainfed animals have a much higher omega-6 fatty acid content and will therefore promote inflammation rather than curb it.
Many saturated fats will raise LDL, the so-called “bad” cholesterol. But LDLs come in various sizes. Large type A particles are less atherogenic and are influenced by saturated fat. Saturated fat also increases HDL, the “good” cholesterol. That said, saturated fat, even though it may raise LDL, can actually improve you lipid profile, especially when you cut the carbs.
Interested in cutting carbs and sugar?
Stick around and join my 21-Day-Sugar-Detox group coming later this summer.
What is cholesterol anyways?
Cholesterol is a waxy substance, essential to many bodily functions (builds hormones, cell membrane strength, insulates nerves, part of bile acids helps digest and absorb fats and fat-soluble vitamins) and is vital for immune function, responding to arterial lesions as a healing agent (Bauman, 2013).
The body manufactures cholesterol on its own within your liver, brain, and other cells in your body and only as needed: The more cholesterol in your diet, the less your body makes and vice versa. (Heart MD Institute, 2013).
Factors that influence cholesterol production (Bauman, 2013):
– High insulin levels and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease increase production
– Glucagon (= “opposite” of insulin) and epinephrine inhibit production
– Statin drugs suppress production but increase its absorption from dietary sources
– Good gut bacteria helps prevent excess absorption
The Big Cholesterol Myth
Since the 1960’s, the medical establishment has adamantly promoted the idea that high cholesterol is a primary risk factor for coronary heart disease, and that a diet high in saturated fat and cholesterol causes heart disease.
However, many studies have shown little connection between high cholesterol levels and heart disease: the Framingham Heart study found 50% of coronary heart disease occurred in people with below average cholesterol.
New science is showing that cholesterol levels are actually a poor predictor of heart disease and that the recommended low-fat/high-carb diets and side-effect-causing statin drugs, obscure the real causes of heart disease. Doctors have been misled for years based on creative reporting of research results from pharmaceutical companies keen on supporting the $31-billion-a-year statin drug industry (Bowden & Sinatra, 2012).
HDL and LDL are not cholesterol
High-density lipoproteins (HDL) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL) are actually not cholesterol at all; they are fat molecules that transport the fat-soluble cholesterol through the watery bloodstream.
Imagine your bloodstream is like a highway. The lipoproteins are like cars that carry the cholesterol and fats (=passengers) around your body. LDLs carry cholesterol to the cells, where it is used in membranes, or for the synthesis of steroid hormones. HDL carries excess LDL from the arteries to the liver for excretion.
Not all LDL’s are bad.
Regular LDL has few properties that would make it a suspect in atherosclerosis. It’s just a little particle carrying cholesterol and fats from the liver to other organs. As soon as it oxidizes, however, it becomes pro-inflammatory, damaging to the vessel wall, and most importantly, capable of transforming immune cells called macrophages into foam cells, a major constituent of arterial plaque. Poor diet and lifestyle can create soft, weak plaque caps which allow the lesions to burst into the artery, leading to heart attack or stroke. A healthy diet and lifestyle initiates healing and stable plaque caps (Bauman, 2015).
Oxidized LDL is formed when the lipids in LDL particles react with oxygen and break down. This happens specifically to the unsaturated fats in LDL, because saturated fats, by their chemical nature, are very resistant to oxidative damage. Polyunsaturated fats are much more susceptible to oxidative damage than saturated or monounsaturated fats. Linoleic acid (the omega-6 fatty acid found abundantly in industrial seed oils like canola, or soybean oil) is the main polyunsaturated fatty acid in LDL.
How to Prevent the Formation of Oxidized LDL:
The best way of reducing oxidized LDL levels is a diet rich in natural anti-oxidants, such as polyphenols, found in fresh fruits and vegetables. Avoid the commercial vegetable oils, and cook with heart healthy coconut- or olive oil. This approach is not widely promoted as it’s less profitable for the aforementioned statin drug industry. Statin drugs do lower LDL cholesterol but don’t address the root cause of the actual offender: oxidized LDL.
How to choose the right kinds of fats:
Heat stable (and ideal for cooking):
palm oil from sustainable sources
lard/bacon fat (pork fat)
Moderately heat stable (best for cold/room temp foods, like salads, or to finish meals after cooking)
NOT recommended (industrial seed oils, easily oxidized, inflammatory):
Bauman, E. (2015). Therapeutic Nutrition Textbook, Part 2. Penngrove, CA: Bauman College.
Sinatra, S., Bowden, J. (2012), The Great Cholesterol Myth, Beverly, MA: Fair Winds Press
Heart MD Institute (2013) “Cholesterol and you: 10 Crucial Facts” www.heartmdinstitute.com
Fitzgerald, M. (2005) “Cholesterol Myths” www.experiencelife.com
Sanfilippo, D. (2013) The 21 Day Sugar Detox Official Program Guide, Victory Belt Publishing, Inc.