The main complaint lobbied by those opposed to using virgin coconut oil* is that is is made up of 85-90 percent saturated fat, and saturated fat is bad for cardiovascular health. But is it? There’s been a slight backpedaling on that notion (although not by all factions of the scientific and medical communities).
Why is it? Is it because they were wrong in the first place? Not exactly. Basically, we know what we know until we know something else. It’s an established biological phenomenon that eating saturated fat raises the cholesterol levels in our blood. Both the “bad” LDL cholesterol and the “good” HDL cholesterol go up, but LDL goes up even more. However, the limited research on coconut oil has suggested that it raises the HDL more than the LDL, creating a more favorable cholesterol ratio.
The bugaboo is that high-quality observational studies don’t suggest that eating more saturated fat increases heart risk. Now, to be fair, observational studies aren’t the gold standard for research (because there are a number of variables that can throw off results when you are observing and recording the habits of free-living humans over time), but this is interesting and even illuminating, nonetheless.
I spent many hours last summer looking over the current research on saturated fats and health, and many (but not all) of the leading health experts now think that there is a benefit from reducing saturated fat…but only if you replace it with something healthier. One of the big myths of what I like to call the “Snackwells era” was that fat-free = healthy. In other words, ditch the premium ice cream but eat all the nonfat frozen yogurt you want. Skip the chocolate but eat jelly beans by the pound. Say no to steak but yes to massive bowls of pasta. You get the idea.
Turns out that cutting saturated fat out of your diet and replacing those calories with sugar and refined carbohydrates was not a good health move. Now, cutting saturated fat and replacing those calories with olive oil, nuts, avocados, vegetables, fish and whole grains…that improved health. (Kind of like the Mediterranean diet, huh?)
That’s the easy part. Now it gets trickier.
I’ve been up to my eyebrows in scientific articles about nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics lately (for fun, which proves I’m a geek). Turns out, there are a handful of genetic variations that affect how some individuals’ cholesterol and triglyceride levels respond to diets high or low in saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat, carbohydrates or dietary cholesterol. In other words, some people do decrease their heart disease risk by adopting a low-fat diet, while others do not. Some people see their HDL levels increase when they swap saturated fats for polyunsaturated fats, others do not.
I look forward to the day when nutrigenetics and nutrigenomics are easily applied in a medical or nutrition therapy setting. We’re not quite there yet. There have been some good advances in understanding the diet-gene interactions related to cardiovascular health, and with cancer to a lesser extent, but it’s still early days yet. That said, for most people, cutting back on processed foods, eating lots of vegetables and fruits, eating quality sources of protein and fats, ans opting for whole grains instead of refined grains most of the time is a good way to go.