The Coconut Oil Miracle?

Coconut-and-Coconut-Oil

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Discovering the Word of Wisdom: The Coconut Oil Miracle?

By Jane Birch • May 12, 2016

This article is part of a series on the Word of Wisdom. To view all the articles in this series, see Discovering the Word of Wisdom.

Recently in “5 Reasons to Ditch the Oils,” I examined the reasons why whole food, plant-based (WFPB) experts recommend we reconsider the use of cooking oils in our diet. In “What About Olive Oil?” I presented evidence that even extra virgin olive oil is not a “healthy fat.” While we certainly do have a nutritional need for a small amount of essential fats, these fats are easily found in whole plant foods. Suggesting we need to get them from oils is like suggesting we need to drink soda pop because it contains an ingredient vital to life: water.

What does this have to do with the Word of Wisdom? The dietary principle that addresses plant foods is found in D&C 89:10–11. Here the Lord tells us He ordained “wholesome” plants to be “used with prudence.” If oils are found to not be “wholesome,” we might want to reconsider whether it is prudent to use them.

Of course, there is no commandment to interpret these verses in any particular way. We each have the marvelous privilege to work these things out for ourselves. I am sharing a WFPB perspective on these topics because the diet WFPB experts recommend matches the Word of Wisdom, and the health results people are getting eating this way are much better than we Mormons have traditionally gotten using our own interpretations. In my opinion, either the Word of Wisdom is a WFPB diet, or WFPB experts have somehow managed to come up with a diet that is even more powerful than what the Lord recommends in D&C 89!

The Coconut Oil “Miracle”

According to Bruce Fife, one of the leading advocates for coconut oil and author of The Coconut Oil Miracle, this “miracle” fat, “protects against heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and a host of other degenerative illnesses. It supports and strengthens the immune system, thus helping the body ward off attack from infection and disease.” [1]

This sounds great, until you learn that coconut oil contains virtually zero nutrients of any value. Instead, it does contain plenty of non-essential fats whose main nutritional value is helping us store body fat for the next famine.

So what is the miracle? The miracle is that everywhere you look you find people touting the health benefits of coconut oil. The miracle is how we’ve taken what is in reality a junk food and somehow turned it into a superfood.

I realize that many people will be surprised (perhaps even upset) by this evaluation of coconut oil. I too wish it was a “healthy fat,” but the evidence does not support this conclusion.

What is in coconut oil?

To read the rhetoric on coconut oil, you’d imagine it is chock full of all kinds of nutrients, but the truth is, compared to any whole plant food, coconut oil contains nothing of nutritional value. Take your average potato: it contains wholesome carbohydrates (including lots of healthy fiber), plenty of high quality protein, and very little fat. It is loaded with vitamins (C, K, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, folate, and pantothenic acid) and lots of minerals (iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, copper, and manganese). It contains no artery-clogging saturated fat but does contain both of the essential fats, omega-3 and omega-6.

In contrast, what does coconut oil have? Well . . . nothing, except fat. It contains no carbohydrates, no fiber, no protein, no vitamins, no minerals, and no phytochemicals. Well, actually, if you consume a cup of coconut oil, you will get 1% of the RDA for vitamins E and K and a small amount of polyphenols, but you’ll also be consuming almost 1,900 calories! [2]

Coconut oil has only one nutrient. It is 100% fat. With so many of us struggling with our weight, fat is not a nutrient we lack. As Dr. John McDougall reminds us, “The fat you eat is the fat you wear.” Fat is the one nutrient the body most easily stores for a “rainy day,” which in our day of food abundance rarely comes. In addition, a high fat diet contributes to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and almost every other chronic disease.[3]

What is “special” about coconut oil?

Not only is coconut oil 100% fat, roughly 90% of this fat is artery-clogging saturated fat. 90%! The only special claim for coconut oil is that over half of the saturated fat it contains is a certain kind of fat: medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are metabolized in the body differently than the long-chain saturated acids (LCTs) typical in animal foods and some vegetable oils.

Several studies indicate that MCTs get oxidized more quickly than LCTs, and it appears that they may be slightly less fattening than LCTs. They may also have less of an impact on LDL cholesterol levels.[4]

So, the specialness of coconut oil is that it may be less unhealthy than some other cooking oils. As I discussed in “What About Olive Oil?”, “less unhealthy” does not equal “healthy.” A less toxic cigarette is not a “lung healthy” cigarette.

If processed cooking oils were a nutritional requirement, finding a less unhealthy oil would be important. But since we can easily get ALL the healthy fats we need from whole plant foods, at the very least, using processed, concentrated sources of fat, like coconut oil, is adding a lot of unneeded and unnecessary calories to our diets.

What about all the health claims?

A quick search on the Internet with turn up thousands of articles touting the health benefits of coconut oil. It is currently one of the hottest trends in nutrition. Unfortunately, it is not backed up with good science. If you’ve read any of these articles, this may sound surprising. But you only need to check the references to see how flimsy (and often non-existent) the evidence it.

One “health expert” categorically declares, “To date, there are over 1,500 studies proving coconut oil to be one of the healthiest foods on the planet.”[5] As evidence, he provides a link to over 1,500 studies in PubMed generated by searching for the term “coconut oil,” but when I checked the references, most had nothing to do with studying the health effects of coconut oil on humans. For example, one of many studies reported on “the effects of presence or absence of rumen protozoa and dietary nitrate addition on rumen fermentation characteristics and in vitro methane production in Brahman heifers.”[6] The cows were fed “4.5% coconut oil distillate” not to discover any truth about human (or even cow) nutrition but to better understand bovine methane production.

Even more significantly, of those over 1,500 studies many of them actually demonstrate negative effects of coconut oil on human health. Here is just one of a great many in the over 1,500 studies he linked to: a meta-review of 21 research papers (8 clinical trials and 13 observational studies) which “examined the effect of coconut oil or coconut products on serum lipid profiles.” What they found was that the use of coconut oil in place of unsaturated fats increased the risk factors for cardiovascular disease. (And this was the risk factors for humans, not cows!) [7]

There are, of course, some studies that show some benefits to coconut oil. These are nearly all benefits to either (1) the experimental animal the study was performed on (not humans) or (2) benefits in biomarkers (like glycemic index) that may or may not translate to actual health benefits in humans. In addition, these benefits are typically not a result of adding coconut oil to a healthy diet but instead of replacing less healthy fats with coconut oil. At best, this may show that coconut oil may be better than some other oils in some situations, but it does not prove that adding coconut oil to a healthy no-oil diet has any health advantage.

Most of the so-called health benefits of coconut oil do not rest on any good science at all. They are based on conjecture, interpretation, and anecdotes.

What about the healthy populations that consume coconut oil?

According to registered dietician and WFPB expert, Jeff Novick:

It is true that some studies of people on traditional Polynesian diets have found that they have relatively low rates from heart disease in spite of their high intake of coconut and their higher levels of blood cholesterol.

But . . . that is only part of the picture as there are many other aspects of the native Polynesian diet and lifestyle that were very healthy and helped counteract the negative effects of the coconut. The traditional Polynesian diet is very high in fiber from locally grown fresh fruits, veggies and root vegetables, high in the protective plant sterols, high in the protective omega 3 fats, and very low in sodium. In addition, since their main source of calories and fat was coconut, in spite of the coconuts high saturated fat intake, they also had a very low intake of dietary cholesterol as coconuts are devoid of dietary cholesterol. They were also very physically active and tended to not smoke.[8]

Doesn’t coconut oil kill harmful microorganisms?

It is true that coconut oil may have some antimicrobial properties, but as WFPB experts and medical doctors Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman remind us,

We don’t eat foods because of their antimicrobial properties. We eat foods to provide healthy fuels, which as a result strengthen our immune system, which then fights microbes. Now, food doesn’t fight infection; rather, our immune system does. With that argument we could recommend alcohol as a health food because alcohol kills some microbes.[9]

Jeff Novick points out that,

our main nutritional and health problems are not bacteria, microbes and infections, but being overfed and undernourished with too many calories and too few nutrients and the resulting weight and lifestyle related diseases. Coconut oil, which is extremely high in calories and void of any nutrients, only makes this already unhealthy situation worse.[10]

What about the claim that coconut oil can boost brain function in Alzheimer’s patients?

This claim is based on anecdote and not on research studies. After a careful review of the relevant literature, WFPB medical specialist Dustin Ruldoph concluded:

There are no peer-reviewed controlled interventional studies observing morbidity and mortality for Alzheimer’s disease as of this date. . . . The Alzheimer’s claim with coconut oil stems from a Florida physician [Mary Newport] who . . . supposedly treated her husband . . . with coconut oil and claims that this led to the remarkable results of reversing her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease.[11]

Despite some improvements in his health, Dr. Newport’s husband continued to deteriorate and died in January 2016 at the age of 65. But even if he had been cured, this is not evidence that coconut oil reverses Alzheimer’s disease. One of the very few studies done on Alzheimer’s patients used components of coconut oil and showed little effect on the disease. Here is a summary of the study, “Does Coconut Oil Cure Alzheimer’s?”

What about coconut oil and heart disease?

While there is no evidence that coconut oil can cure Alzheimer’s, we do know that it is threatening to our cardiovascular system. Encouraging Alzheimer’s patients to consume it may or may not help their brains, but it will definitely increase risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

In a 5-minute video, “Does Coconut Oil Clog Arteries?” Dr. Michael Greger reports on four research studies (one population study and three clinical trials) that examined the effect of coconut oil on blood lipids. Here is the summary:

The bottom line is that the best available evidence is that coconut oil significantly worsens our bad cholesterol levels.[12]

What about studies that show coconut oil appears to have a better effect on blood cholesterol levels than some other concentrated fats? Drs. Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman point out:

[MCTs] have been shown to have less of an effect on LDL, bad cholesterol [compared to longer-chain fatty acids]. But is that not similar to saying that burning your hand with a 300-degree flame has less of an effect on your skin than burning your hand with a 400-degree flame? Oil and fat are oil and fat.[13]

Finally, Jeff Novick reported on another scientific study that showed the damaging effect of coconut oil on inflammation and blood flow. This study,

looked at the effects of even just one high fat meal, where the fat came from coconut oil, on HDL, inflammation, and blood flow. Subjects were fed a meal high in fat from coconut oil and the effects were evaluated at 3 and 6 hours after the meal. The meal containing coconut oil impaired the anti-inflammatory action of HDL at both 3 and 6 hours. In addition, blood flow was significantly reduced 3 hours after the meal containing coconut oil and remained slightly reduced at 6 hours.[14]

But doesn’t coconut oil help you to lose fat?

One of the most hopeful health claims for coconut oil is that it can help burn fat and reduce hunger so you eat less. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Unfortunately, at best coconut oil may be better than some other oils, but as should be obvious, eating fat does not help anyone lose fat (unless they are also reducing calories at the same time). According to Drs. Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman, even if it is true that MCFAs (the special medium chain fatty acids) have the potential to promote weight loss,

this reductionist view misses the point that people don’t eat MCFAs. Rather, they eat coconut oil, and half the saturated fat in coconut oil is not MCFAs. At over 90% saturated fat, taking away the portion of MCFAs in coconut oil . . . you are still left with 45% of the saturated fat. So even subtracting all of the theoretical goodness of MCFAs from the total saturated fat content, coconut oil is still worse than lard, which is only 43% saturated fat. And we all know that lard is not a health food.[15]

Still more bad news

It turns out, not all coconut oil has much of the supposedly miraculous MCTs or even the meager amounts of polyphenols found in raw coconut oil. First, many of the health claims made for coconut oil are not for the refined varieties typically found on store shelves but instead the much more expensive cold-pressed extra virgin coconut oils. But even then, according to Jeff Novick:

because . . . MCTs are used in the medical and cosmetic industry, they are often removed from coconut oil which leaves an even higher concentration of the other harmful fatty acids.[16]

But even if you can afford to purchase the coconut oil with lots of MCTs and a few polyphenols, note this observation from Drs. Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman:

We shouldn’t approve of a food just because one part of it has a specific property we like. This reductionist view is sort of like saying cigarettes are great because they have found some antioxidants in the tobacco.[17]

The bottom-line

Coconut oil may be better than some other unhealthy fats, but no amount of coconut oil adds value to an already healthy whole food, plant-based diet. At the very least, using coconut oil adds unneeded calories, raises LDL cholesterol, and impairs blood flow in our arteries.

I’m personally grateful that the Lord’s Word of Wisdom does not single out specialty foods like extra virgin coconut oil that frankly most of us can’t afford. Instead, His diet plan singles out foods like wheat and other grains which are the cheapest source of calories on the planet. He ordained these wholesome grains to serve as the foundation of our diet and also ordained other wholesome plants for our use. He says nothing to encourage adding oils and other concentrated sources of calories to our diets.

If this is your first exposure to negative news about coconut oil, it might not change your opinion. The current hype about coconut oil is too high. I can’t even persuade my own mother that coconut oil is not healthy! But you shouldn’t just take my word for it; review the resources provided and make up your own mind. For more articles written by WFPB experts, see “Coconut Oil.” You can also find oil-free “WFPB Salad Dressings” and “WFPB Sauces.” And here are tips for “Reducing Fat in Your Diet and Cooking Without Oil.”

For help getting started on a healthy Word of Wisdom diet, see: “Getting Started.”

Jane Birch is the author of Discovering the Word of Wisdom: Surprising Insights from a Whole Food, Plant-based Perspective and many articles on the Word of Wisdom. She can be contacted on her website, Discovering the Word of Wisdom. Watch the video “Discovering the Word of Wisdom: A Short Film.”

Notes

[1] Bruce Fife, The Coconut Oil Miracle (New York: Avery, 2004), p. 7.

[2] Check the nutrition facts for coconut oil in SELFNutritionData.com.

[3] See “5 Reasons to Ditch the Oils” for over 20 chronic health problems associated with a high fat diet. (You can click on any of the health problems for more details.)

[4] David Schardt, “Coconut Oil,” NutritionAction Newsletter (June 2012).

[5] Josh Axe, “20 Coconut Oil Benefits & Side Effects,” DrAxe.com.

[6] S. H. Nguyen and R. S. Hegarty, “Effects of Rumen Protozoa of Brahman Heifers and Nitrate on Fermentation and In vitro Methane Production,” Asian-Australasian Journal of Animal Sciences 2016; 29(6): 807-813.

[7] L. Eyres, et al., “Coconut Oil Consumption and Cardiovascular Risk Factors in Humans,” Nutrition Reviews (April 2016) 74(4): 267-80.

[8] Jeff Novick, “Marketing Junk Food: Don’t Go Cuckoo Over Coconut Oil,” JeffNovick.com (April 10, 2008).

[9] Alona Pulde and Matthew Lederman, “Is Coconut Oil Healthy or Hazardous?” ForksOverKnives.com (July 7, 2015).

[10] See Note 8.

[11] Dustin Ruldoph, “Coconut Oil Increases Cardiovascular Disease Risk and Possible Death Due to Heart Attacks and Stroke,” Plant-based Pharmacist (April 14, 2015). See also John Schappi, “Re-examining the Coconut-Oil-for-Alzheimer’s Hype” and “Coconut Oil” on Snopes.com.

[12] Michael Greger, “Does Coconut Oil Clog Arteries?” NutritionFacts.org (February 11, 2013).

[13] See Note 9.

[14] See Note 8. Also see original study: Stephen J. Nicholls, et al., “Consumption of Saturated Fat Impairs the Anti-Inflammatory Properties of High-Density Lipoproteins and Endothelial Function,” Journal of the American College of Cardiology 48(4) (August 15, 2006): 715–720.

[15] See Note 9. Also see Note 4 for more on coconut oil and weight loss.

[16] See Note 8.

[17] See Note 9.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this excellent article about coconut oil. I was using it a lot until I began eating a WOW diet and reading all the great information about eating a WFPB diet. This article adds so much to my knowledge.

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