According to an advisory notice that was recently issued by the AHA, Americans need to lower the amount of saturated fat in our diets in order to prevent cardiovascular disease.
While that is fairly common knowledge, this advisory included coconut oil in the list of oils that should be avoided, despite years of anecdotal evidence the coconut oil is quite healthy.
This seems to be a case where the AHA report is misguided.
The American Heart Association is responsible for the issuance of the recent presidential advisory, and the decision to issue the statement was made after reviewing four major case studies of saturated fats. The statement went on to recommend that polyunsaturated fats should be substituted for saturated fats like coconut oil.
Acceptable alternatives include corn oil, canola oil, and soybean oil. The AHA gave the statement the classification of a presidential advisory because it was initiated and issued by the president of the organization.
The purpose of these special issuances is to disseminate important information on a special topic.
You’ve probably read many different reports that claim saturated fat both does and does not lead to cardiovascular issues.
There seems to be little scientific consensus on the subject, so I’m not going to delve into the argument in this article.
I shall focus instead on this specific presidential advisory and its particular claims regarding coconut oil.
Despite a number of in-depth reviews and analyses over the past several years, there has been no definable connection between the rate at which saturated fats are consumed and the rate at which heart disease develops.
Of these many studies, many of the authors have noted that there is no obvious consensus regarding the results of all these studies.
When the AHA was determining the value or risks of saturated fats, including coconut oil, they cherry-picked the studies that most suited their predetermined conclusion.
Their rational for choosing to cite only the studies that pointed toward a negative correlation between saturated fats and heart disease was that those studies were ‘well-performed’.
Interestingly enough, the dates of the studies that were chosen by the AHA to cite were all at least forty years old. The oldest case was from 1969, and the newest was from 1979.
To be fair, there have not been studies done at the same large scale as those four core studies, but that doesn’t change the fact that data from so long ago is no longer valid in terms of its relation to modern society.
The dietary habits of Americans aren’t the same as they were forty years ago, and they will continue to change drastically in the coming century.
Corporate Influence Over Nutritional Studies
As with essentially all industries, money is at the core of most decisions made in the arena of nutritional science.
The AHA isn’t immune to the influences of large businesses that provide significant amounts of money to the organization.
Since the AHA is non-profit, it relies heavily on donations and government subsidies, and many of their most staunch donators are major food brands like Coca-Cola, Nestle, the US Canola Association, and the United Soybean Board.
Even the AHA website claims that its advisory panel, which is made up of many representatives from these brands, is a valuable program to help progress the dialogue regarding heart disease and nutrition.
It doesn’t take a vivid imagination to realize what sort of negative influence on nutritional values a company like Coca-Cola could have with respect to its position on the panel.
I’ve never felt particularly healthy after drinking a Coke, and the people behind the soft drink are whispering in the ear of the AHA.
Clinical Significance vs. Statistical Significance
Any time the scientific process has to be used to classify and define human health metrics, researchers must be wary of the difference between clinical significance and statistical significance.
A statistic can be called significant if any perceived difference across observable groups is not the result of chance.
In other words, a result could be considered insignificant if there is any unaccounted reason for the observable difference. When dealing with clinical significance, the definition is much more subtle and far less defined.
Clinal significance simply deals with the importance of the observable differences from a practical standpoint. In other words, do the results point to an increased likelihood in experiencing cardiovascular issues?
The authors of this report by the AHA only looked at clinical significance in a handful of cases, and the majority of their findings were based on LDL cholesterol levels. While LDL cholesterol is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, it is not a direct cause of it.
The studies they cited pointed toward a marked difference in LDL levels after a change in the intake level of saturated fat, but the number appears to only have statistical significance. The change was small enough that it should not correlate with any practical change in the risk of heart disease.
Variations in LDL
LDL stands for low-density lipids, and it turns out that cholesterol itself is only one aspect of LDL. The lipids can also exist as particulate matter in the blood, which is known as LDL-P. T
he report released by the AHA only focused on LDL-C, or cholesterol LDL.
However, those with high levels of LDL-P are at much higher risk of cardiovascular disease than those with high LDL-C. This factor was ignored by the AHA report.
Human vs. Animal Lipid Metabolism
The AHA report also attempts to make a correlation between studies done on the lipid metabolism of animals and humans, but that is a highly misleading connection to make.
Animals metabolize lipids in highly varied ways, and there is no guarantee that the results from one species will relate practically to another species.
Humans are also one of the most unique animals on the planet for one reason: our brains. The human brain requires much more energy than many other animal brains simply because it does more work, and our entire metabolism has been honed to deal with the tremendous amount calories we require on a daily basis.
Even compared to other primates, the human digestive system is much more suited for a diet consisting heavily of animal products and fats.
Because of this, it is difficult to accurately extrapolate results from animal metabolism testing to humans.
Paleolithic Diet Efficacy
If you’re like me, you’ve probably wondered once or twice why it is that hunter-gatherers of the past had very few instances of heart disease despite a diet that often consistent primarily of animal fat.
Some estimates have shown that as much as a quarter of the entire diet of these hunter-gatherers was made up of saturated fat, yet they rarely experienced problems with heart health.
It turns out that most of the benefits of that diet come from a lack of processed foods.
Even so-called ‘modern paleo’ diets aren’t exactly as they would have been in the past, especially in terms of fat intake, but studies have still shown that those diets are effective at reducing the risk of heart disease.
Scientifically Proven Coconut Oil Benefits
In general, it seems the report from the AHA is highly inaccurate, but the fact that it now includes coconut oil is highly disturbing.
I would imagine coconut oil was added to the list because of corporate influence from companies that don’t want to see coconut oil become a competitor for their products.
The basic logic used by the study makes sense, which is that saturated fat is linked to cardiovascular disease, and coconut oil is high in saturated fat, therefore coconut oil should be avoided.
Unfortunately, it seems the basic premise isn’t accurate since saturated fat doesn’t directly cause heart disease.
It also assumes that every form of saturated fat is identical, which isn’t true.
In terms of the benefits associated with coconut oil, studies have been done that show it can improve the lipid profile of your blood, reduce weight, protect against Alzheimer’s disease, and much more. Coconut oil also acts as a powerful antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory agent.
You shouldn’t be worried about consuming coconut oil, and I know I’m certainly not.