You may have seen the article going around, the American Heart Association claiming that you should avoid coconut oil. Is it true?
To answer this question we need to talk about cholesterol and cholesterol particle size, because this is what it boils down to, and hardly anyone is talking about it. For a long time people thought cholesterol was bad. This is a major myth. First, let’s change gears and look at all the good qualities of cholesterol:
Cholesterol is a:
When you look at the roles it plays, cholesterol is actually pretty awesome. So why does it get such a bad wrap? Well, cholesterol is like the guy who stumbles on a murder victim, tries desperately to revive them, and then is accused of the crime later on. Cholesterol’s role is to patch up the damage inflamed tissue. So when you have a lot of cholesterol, it could mean your body has a lot of damaged tissue that needs to be repaired. In terms of heart disease, cholesterol is being synthesized to patch up all the damaged blood vessels. What causes this inflammation and damage? If could be a number of things including poor food choices, excess sugar, infection, toxins, and high homocysteine from MTHFR genetic defects to name a few. These are the bad guys, not cholesterol. Poor cholesterol is found guilty by association, but we need to cut cholesterol some slack because it is only trying to help.
Now there are different types of cholesterol. According to most doctors, you have “good” and “bad”. Good cholesterol is referred to high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, and bad cholesterol is referred to low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. There is even VLDL which is VERY low density lipoprotein which is considered the worst. So according to doctors, it is better to have HDL rather than LDL, which is associated with a higher risk for cardiovascular disease (CVD).
But is it this simple? Not really. This is a unfortunate oversimplification that the American Heart Association uses all too often. People with low levels of “bad” LDL cholesterol, still have heart attacks. Ugh. So what now? The next step is to access the particle size of LDL cholesterol. The goal is to have a larger particle size. Big, fluffy, cloud-like cholesterol is much gentler on your blood vessels than tiny BB sized bullet cholesterol. These tiny BB bullets misguidedly shoot your blood vessels in an unfortunate attempt to patch up holes. In other words, the big fluffy LDL is the good Samaritan who knows what he is doing and may actually save a life, where as the small BB bullet LDL is a good-hearted Samaritan who doesn't quite know what they are doing and as a consequence they do more damage than good. If there are concerns about heart health, particle size is what doctors and researchers should be looking for, not only if LDL cholesterol is increased. Plus much of the research that is referenced to is outdated and results are all over the place. In fact, the AHA even admits that all the research they are basing their information on was done back in the 50’s and 60’s and no decent research had been done since due to high cost and difficulty of running a proper experiment.1 For all we know, coconut oil could be creating wonderful big fluffy cloud-like LDL cholesterol and actually lower your risk for cardiovascular disease. If you read the entire AHA report, studies only demonstrate that coconut oil raises LDL cholesterol. They have NO studies that have investigated the direct effects on particle size or cardiovascular events.1 Plus, new research says is raises the “good” HDL cholesterol too.2 In my opinion, this is not enough information to advise not using it. Especially when LDL has a very important role in the body, and if it’s increased, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.
So what exactly does the “bad” cholesterol do? Its responsibility is to carry cholesterol from the liver and deliver it to damaged tissues in order to make repairs. Well that doesn’t seem so bad! Once you realize this, you can see that LDL is necessary to repair a damaged heart. You only get into trouble when you have the small BB bullet sized LDL particles, because they have a tendency to stick together and build up at the site of injury causing more inflammation and plaque to accumulate. In an attempt to heal, they can layer on too many patches and cause a block in the arteries. This is how cholesterol can get really dangerous. HDL, on the other hand, takes cholesterol away from a site of injury, back to the liver to be metabolized after that tissue has been healed. It can also remove some of the plaque that is building up. That is how HDL became the good guy and LDL became the bad guy. BUT, if you have nice fluffy LDL you can heal and reduce the risk of buildup or accumulation inside the blood vessel walls.
Small LDL can also be dangerous because it oxidizes easily and causes inflammation in the body, it lowers nitric oxide, it stays in the plasma for a long time, it causes the blood to get thick, and the blood vessels to get thin.3 This is a dangerous formula for cardiovascular disease. Small particle size is also common in patients with high triglycerides and insulin resistance further raising red flags about more serious health issues.3 Small particle size can be a much better indicator to cardiovascular risk than raised LDL alone. So the fact that coconut oil raises LDL doesn’t mean it’s dangerous, it could actually be expediting the healing process. It depends on your overall health.
So, how do you maintain healthy levels and sizes of cholesterol that can effectively heal your tissues instead of being in overdrive and clogging up your arteries? You need to find out the root cause of what is damaging your body. Some people have vessel and tissue inflammation because of a poor diet, infection, toxic chemicals, too many free-radicals, not enough antioxidants, genetic predisposition, environmental and food allergens and sensitivities. You have to figure out what is causing the inflammation. Reduced vessel inflammation = reduced risk of heart disease and cardiovascular events. It can take a little investigation, and you may have to change many facets of your life, but it is worth it!
That brings us back to coconut oil. Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, the kind of fat the American Heart Association is advising against eating. Once again, let’s look at what is great about saturated fat. Saturated fat shines when it comes to cooking. Saturated fats, such as coconut oil and butter, do not oxidize easily and can be heated at higher temperatures without causing major damaging free radicals. They are much more resilient than their more delicate oil counterpart called polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). PUFAs are what the American Heart Association are encouraging in their latest article, while they are discouraging saturated fat.1 Which fair enough, polyunsaturated fats are healthy for you, BUT they can be toxic to cook with and can become extremely inflammatory to your body. Both saturated fat and PUFAs are excellent fuel for the heart, and if you eat a whole food and healthy diet and are in good health, saturated fats like coconut oil provide MANY benefits. Coconut oil contains caprylic acid, lauric acid, capric acid, and medium chain triglycerides (MCT) which are anti-microbial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, increases metabolism, is a quick clean energy fuel, plus so much more.
Now if you have a terrible diet, eat a lot of refined carbohydrates, don’t work out, and have a diet related disease such as heart disease, diabetes, or metabolic syndrome, you probably have the small BB bullet size LDL cholesterol, and in that case, coconut oil is not going to cancel out everything and make you healthier. It can increase your small LDL, and unfortunately because you lack the fluffy cloud-like LDL cholesterol, you can induce more damage on your blood vessels and increase your chance of a heart attack or cardiovascular event. In this case, I would lightly use coconut oil or butter when cooking. As far as PUFAs go, you need to watch out for plant oils such as vegetable, corn, canola, and soybean oil because these are highly processed and are often made from GMO ingredients. The best way to get your PUFAs is by eating your vegetables, nuts, and seeds. For salad dressings, the two best plant oils are olive and avocado oil. They are higher in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs) than polyunsaturated fatty acids, but are very heart healthy and a great choice. It is important to use a high quality olive and avocado oil because plant oils are often stripped of their antioxidant components and can oxidize and create inflammatory byproducts. Buy in small batches so the oil is always fresh to prevent it from going rancid over time. Also, ALWAYS avoid margarine and trans fat, they are very detrimental for your heart health and under no circumstances are these ever healthy. Fatty acids are the preferred fuel of the heart, and eating healthy saturated fats, PUFAs, and MUFAs give your heart the fuel it needs to function.
So is coconut oil healthy for your heart? Yes! But if you have heart disease, while coconut oil has a place in a health restoration program, it's important to focus to on a diet rich in anti-oxidant and phytonutrient dense whole foods to help heal the root cause of your inflammation and damaged tissues.
If you are concerned about your high cholesterol and your risk for heart disease, ask your doctor about doing a Lipoprotein Particle Profile (LPP). Unfortunately they are not commonly run on patients, but they should because they can give great insight into your cholesterol particle size health. This is more specific than generalized high cholesterol, and can give you a better idea about your risk for heart disease.
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