That’s nuts: Heart Association advises against eating trendy coconut oil

While at a baby shower last month, I heard a smart, health-aware woman boldly state “Avocadoes are full of cholesterol.” I quietly corrected her, noting that while avocadoes do consist of healthy fats, only animal products contain cholesterol. This reminded me there is so much confusion about dietary fats and cholesterol among even “enlightened” consumers.

So much so that the popularity of coconut oil and full-fat dairy foods was recently upended when the American Heart Association issued its latest advice. The agency’s Presidential Advisory advised against the consumption of both stating, “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of cardiovascular disease, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”

How did the American Heart Association come to this conclusion? It looked at peer-reviewed scientific research on saturated fat and especially on coconut oil. Seven out of seven studies found coconut oil boosted LDL cholesterol, similar to the effects of foods high in saturated fats such butter, beef fat and palm oil.

Coconut oil, the darling of many new parents and food bloggers, has far more saturated fatty acids (82 percent) compared to butter (63 percent), beef fat (50 percent) and even pork lard (39 percent).

The current health halo enjoyed by coconut oil may be due to its higher proportion of medium-chain triglycerides than most other oils, which may boost a person’s metabolic rate, theoretically leading to weight loss. Reality check: The coconut oil researchers used a unique blend of coconut oil containing 100 percent medium-chain triglycerides, far higher than the 13–15 percent found in the virgin coconut oil available to consumers.

The Association recommends replacing saturated fats with monounsaturated fat or polyunsaturated fats within an overall healthful dietary pattern. But don’t replace saturated fats with refined carbohydrates and sugars such as white bread, sugary drinks, or pastries. According to a widely publicized 2014 study, people who did that had little to no reduction in heart disease risk.

Outside nutrition experts who were not involved in the research almost uniformly support the advisory saying it’s full of robust recommendations and common sense.

“There has been a growing trend of media articles focusing on small studies suggesting some saturated fats are good for you,” Dr. Frank Sacks, the report’s lead author told Medscape, a medical news site. “People are advocating that eating butter and full-fat milk is beneficial. And coconut oil is a fad right now — but it is actually a saturated fat, which raises your LDL.”

All fats and oils are composed of a blend of fatty acids, not one singular type. Here is a rundown:

Mostly saturated (strictly limit): Coconut oil (even organic virgin), palm and palm kernel, dairy fats, meat fats (especially beef).

Mostly monounsaturated (okay): Olive oil, peanuts and peanut oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, avocado, most tree nuts and their oils.

Mostly polyunsaturated (best): Corn, soybean, cottonseed, safflower, walnut, and sesame oils, flax seed, and pine nuts.

Even though coconut oil is widely touted as being healthy, where are you going to get your nutrition advice: Bloggers who state their opinions after doing “research” on the internet, or the actual researchers who have submitted their studies for peer review?

Dr. Sacks suggests you take coconut oil out of your kitchen and bring it into your bathroom.

“You can put it on your body, but don’t put it in your body,” he said.

Christine Palumbo is a Naperville-registered dietitian nutritionist. While usually sticking with extra virgin olive oil, she admits to enjoying just a little butter now and then. Find her at Christine Palumbo Nutrition on Facebook, @PalumboRD on Twitter or ChristinePalumbo.com.