Applying Critical Thinking to the Coconut Oil Claims

Applying Critical Thinking to the Coconut Oil Claims

The American Heart Association dropped a gigantic bombshell claiming Coconut Oil is hazardous to your health. The report states coconut oil raises your bad cholesterol (LDL), a cause of cardiovascular health.

Were the studies monetarily influenced?

In my opinion, the easiest way to spot potential erroneous or inflammatory information is to follow the money. These are my rules for every study I read:

  • Who funded the studies?
  • Are there sponsors? Who are they?
  • Are there grants issued? Who gave them?
  • Are the researchers incentivized and if any of them are doctors, do they receive pharmaceutical money?

First let's look at the researchers. Here's a glimpse into the writing disclosures for the authors of the study which include grants by several pharmaceutical giants (who sell cardiovascular medication) and even the Canola Oil Council, an alternative oil recommended by the researchers. More on that frankenfood in a minute.

Secondly, I discovered the American Heart Association is sponsored by unhealthy food companies like Coca-cola, Cheerios and Subway. In fact, Coke and Pepsi give millions to health groups and researchers while simultaneously lobbying against it. 

Their sponsorships have been called into question several times and challenged that they should be treated no differently than a study sponsored by the tobacco industry. As we've seen over and over and over, companies/industries who sponsor/fund studies have been known to suppress unfavorable results and promote skewed findings that boost their sales.

Studies with financial ties to sugary drinks are significantly less likely to find a link between those products and obesity or diabetes than are independent studies...researchers combed PubMed, an online listing of scientific research, to find 60 experimental studies that examined the effects of sugar-sweetened beverages on metabolic outcomes like obesity and diabetes.
Thirty-four of those studies, a slight majority, found an association between sugary beverages and obesity; 26 found no association. But the latter group was entirely made up of industry-funded studies, while only one (2.9 percent) of the positive studies had ties to industry.

The funding — from companies like PepsiCo and Nestle — took the form of either direct financial support of the research, or the payment of authors as consultants.

Another study analyzed randomized cardiovascular trials published in leading, peer-reviewed medical journals during the five year period of 2000-2005 in which one treatment strategy was directly compared to a competing treatment. They found that 67.2% of studies funded exclusively by for-profit organizations favored the newer treatment, whereas only 49.0% of studies funded by non-profit organizations (such as non-profit foundations and state or federal government agencies) showed results in favor of the newer treatment.

"This contrast was even more pronounced for pharmaceutical drugs, where 65.5% of the industry sponsored studies showed benefits of the newer treatment, while only 39.5% of non-profit funded studies favored the new treatment."

Do the claims have any merit?

"In recent years, there have been a total of at least 17 meta-analyses and systematic reviews, plus 5 non-systematic reviews that have have failed to find a clear link between saturated fats and heart disease/cardiovascular death." Read the summaries of each study here.

The AHA study looked at only 4 studies, 50 years old, while making an age-old rookie mistake; showing correlation while failing to prove the causation between the variables. As so many of us "truthers" know, correlation does not equal causation. Here is an example showing a correlation to cheese consumption and death by bedsheets:

Of note, is that the USA Today article vilified coconut oil on the basis that it raises LDL cholesterol. However, the most recent Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) removed dietary cholesterol as a nutrient of concern, given that there is “no appreciable relationship between dietary cholesterol and serum cholesterol or clinical cardiovascular events in general populations,” so cholesterol content should not deter you from consumption of saturated fat (Mozaffarian & Ludwig, 2015, p. 2421).

Low total cholesterol, formerly believed to be protective against cardiovascular disease, has been demonstrated to have a litany of ill effects. In particular, women with a total cholesterol below 195 mg/dL have a higher risk of mortality compared to women with cholesterol above this cut-off (Petrusson, Sigurdsson, Bengtsson, Nilsen, & Getz, 2012).

Low cholesterol has been correlated with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, suicide, homicide, accidental deaths, and morbid depression (Boscarino, Erlich, & Hoffman, 2009; Morgan, Palinkas, Barrett-Connor, & Wingard, 1993, Mielke et al., 2005; Seneff, Wainwright, & Mascitelli, 2011).

In a group of men 50 years and older, researchers found depression to be three times more common in the group with low plasma cholesterol (Morgan, Palinkas, Barrett-Connor, & Wingard, 1993). Shockingly, men with total cholesterol below 165 m/dL were also found to be seven times more likely to die prematurely from unnatural causes, including suicide and accidents (Boscarino, Erlich, & Hoffman, 2009).

In fact, Morgan, Palinkas, Barrett-Connor, and Winged (1993) articulate this with, “In several clinical trials of interventions designed to lower plasma cholesterol, reductions in coronary heart disease mortality have been offset by an unexplained rise in suicides and other violent deaths” (p. 75).

In essence, in progressive circles, the cholesterol-demonizing, artery-clogging model of heart disease has been redacted in favor of one where inflammation leads to endothelial and vascular smooth muscle dysfunction as well as oxidative stress. Like firefighters at a fire, cholesterol is present at the scene of the crime, but it is not the perpetrator—-rather, it is a protective antioxidant element that repairs damage to arteries.

Moreover, cholesterol is an important precursor to our steroid hormones and bile acids, a membrane constituent that helps maintain structural integrity and fluidity, and an essential component for transmembrane transport, cell signaling, and nerve conduction.

And regarding saturated fat, the same author of the quote above summarized it here:

Further, the recommendations of the AHA are especially surprising in light of the results of the Minnesota Coronary Experiment performed forty years ago, where the saturated fat in the diets of 9000 institutionalized mental patients was replaced with polyunsaturated fats in the form of corn oil. A 2010 re-evaluation of the data from this experiment was published in the British Medical Journal (Ramsden et al., 2016).

According to this re-analysis, these patients experienced a 22% higher risk of death for each 30 mg/dL reduction in serum cholesterol (Ramsden et al., 2016). Thus, although substituting saturated fat for omega-6 fats led to reductions in cholesterol, these patients suffered poorer health outcomes, highlighting that cholesterol is not the villain it was formerly construed to be.

What’s more, although the USA Today article declares the dangers of saturated fat, a recent meta-analysis in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, which compiled data from 21 studies including 347,747 people that were followed for an average of 14 years, concluded that there is no appreciable relationship between saturated fat consumption and incidence of cardiovascular disease or stroke (Siri-Tarino, Sun, Hu, & Krauss, 2010).

Another meta-analysis published in 2015 in the British Journal of Medicine concluded that there is no association between saturated fat and risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease, ischemic stroke, type 2 diabetes, or all-cause mortality (the risk of death from any cause) (de Souza et al., 2015).

Along similar lines, a trial published in the American Journal of Nutrition in 2016 showed that eating a high fat diet, and deriving a large proportion of calories from saturated fat, improved biomarkers of cardiometabolic risk and insulin resistance, such as insulin, HDL, triglycerides, C-peptide, and glycated hemoglobin (Veum et al., 2016). The researchers conclude, “Our data do not support the idea that dietary fat per se promotes ectopic adiposity and cardiometabolic syndrome in humans” (Veum et al., 2016).

LDL has been shown to increase with higher saturated fat intake but in the form of large particles. The LDL with small, dense particles seem to be the harmful ones.

The "recommended" oils

After demonizing coconut oil, the AHA goes on to recommend these oils for consumption instead:

If you want to geek out more, check out this chart from GreenMedInfo describing the "dietary balance of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, which compete for incorporation into the phospholipid bilayer of cellular membranes, is integral for restoration of immune health and for prevention of long-latency, chronic, and degenerative diseases. In order to generate optimal ratios of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids, ditch the toxic industrialized vegetable oils, and moderate consumption of grains and seeds as well, since they contain linoleic acid, the precursor to the omega-6 fatty acid arachidonic acid."

"Arachidonic acid is processed by the enzyme cyclooxygenase (COX) to produce pro-inflammatory signaling molecules called eicosanoids, including leukotrienes, prostaglandins, and thromboxanes. Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, promote the production of less inflammatory mediators. Therefore, USA Today’s recommendation to increase consumption of pro-inflammatory vegetable oils, amidst an epidemic of inflammatory chronic diseases, is negligent and irresponsible."

So, the moral of the story is to look at financial ties and break out your critical thinking hat before believing anything. Should you eat coconut oil with every meal? Probably not. Should you look at the quality of your coconut oil? Of course. Buy from trusted sources and wonder why the industries like Tobacco, Soda and Pharmaceuticals may be funding studies.

Keep questioning those who benefit off keeping you sick.