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In 2017, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a position paper saying that coconut oil is “just as bad” as butter. Why? Because it raises cholesterol. This news sparked concern – after all, coconut oil is typically thought of as a health-conscious ingredient that can be used for everything from sautéing to baking to stirring into smoothies and protein shakes.
Before you worry, however, take a deep breath. Think about the AHA’s statement for a minute. It’s akin to saying, “Anyone wearing a green hat is a criminal,” and then “proving” someone’s a criminal by pointing out that he wears a green hat.
You can do that without ever having to examine whether your premise – all green hat wearers are criminals – is even remotely related to the truth.
Coconut Oil is No Different From Other Saturated Fats
Here’s what the AHA has done. It looked at existing data and concluded – to no one’s surprise – that coconut oil, like every other saturated fat on the planet, raises cholesterol. No one in the health community has ever denied this; however, there is vigorous debate about whether it matters.
Since the AHA notes that saturated fat can raise LDL cholesterol levels and potentially increase your risk for strokes and heart disease, it considers any food that raises cholesterol to be, by definition, “bad.” (Which is why it demonized saturated fat in the first place, and has continued to do so since at least 1976.)
Should You Worry About Saturated Fats Like Coconut Oil?
The belief that saturated fat and cholesterol cause heart disease is, to me, a “zombie idea” – the name Nobel-prize-winning American economist Paul Krugman gives to any theory that continues to live on, even though it should have died from lack of evidence years ago.
Too many studies have disproved the connection of saturated fat to heart disease (such as this one), and too many studies have cast doubt on the supposed connection between cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease. If saturated fat and cholesterol levels don’t cause heart disease—which I believe they don’t—then the dietary recommendations of the past 40 years crumble like a house of cards.
What’s more, the way we measure cholesterol by dividing it into simplistic categories like “good” and “bad,” is outdated. We now know that there are at least five different kinds (each) of LDL and HDL, and they behave quite differently. Viewing cholesterol as simply “good” or “bad” is not helpful. It’s like relying on an abacus instead of using a supercomputer.
In sum, all the AHA position statement really tells us is this: Saturated fat raises cholesterol.
To which we – meaning those of us in the growing army of cholesterol-theory skeptics – say, “So what?”
Jonny Bowden, PHD, CNS is a board-certified nutrition specialist, motivational speaker and nationally recognized expert in the areas of weight loss, nutrition and health. A best-selling author of 15 books, he is a resident expert and monthly columnist for Clean Eating magazine.