Paleo Plan

Are Coconut Oil, Saturated Fat, and Cholesterol Really Ok?

Coconut oil/saturated fatMANY of you have in some way asked this string of questions:

“Why are you Paleo people telling me that saturated fat, including the stuff in coconut oil, is good for me when the whole health world has told me otherwise my whole life? Won’t it clog my arteries? And what about the cholesterol in all that meat? I’m not going to have a heart attack?” 

And now commences my answer, an outpouring of information you should hold close to your heart at every meal fraught with those “artery clogging” fats. I strongly encourage you to actually read the links I provide below. They’re long articles, too, but they will answer your questions and ease your mind. Alright, let’s go.

Sally Fallon’s Take On Things

Here’s an article from 1999 by Sally Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation (a source of info I use often) about saturated fat and coconut oil in particular. She knew we had it wrong even then…

http://www.westonaprice.org/know-your-fats/new-look-at-coconut-oil

Chris Masterjohn’s Take On Things

Here are two articles from Chris Masterjohn, the cholesterol/saturated fat guru himself, about coconut oil and saturated fat in general:

http://blog.cholesterol-and-health.com/2010/06/coconut-not-only-protects-your-liver.html

http://www.cholesterol-and-health.com/One-High-Saturated-Fat-Meal-Can-Be-Bad-Carrot-Cake-Coconut-Oil.html

 Paleo Plan’s Take On Things

Basically it boils down to the fact that “they” have been wrong all this time. Many of the studies from the last century that deduced that fat causes all things bad were just terrible studies using bad science. Some studies were doctored. Some studies were long-term, correlative studies where they couldn’t truly tell what was causing what, so they decided to blame fat, and saturated fat or cholesterol at that, for heart disease, etc. because it was an easy target. It’s similar to how the China Study blamed animal protein in general for cancer, even though they only did a study on milk protein (and a terrible study at that) and then extrapolated that to ALL animal proteins causing cancers. Oh, and they did a correlative study in China that was highly dubious and debatable. See debate here.

Here’s a 4-page portion of chapter 4 of our book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Eating Paleo, in its unpublished form (but in its very edited form nonetheless), on saturated fat and cholesterol. I know it’s kind of a cop out to use our already published information on the blog. But I have a wedding to plan and I honestly don’t know how to reword this to make it better than it already is (pats self on the back). This should answer a lot of your questions about saturated fat and cholesterol. The Idiot’s Guide book is out now, and if you haven’t bought it, I think it might answer a lot of your questions in the future (not that I mind answering them myself). The work below belongs to our publisher, Alpha, which is a subsidiary of Penguin Books.

Cholesterol and Saturated Fat Fables

Both cholesterol and saturated fat have pretty terrible reputations in the Western world, and for outdated and unsupported reasons. The change from healthy animal fats to wrecked, omega-6-laden oils is one of the greatest mistakes we made in the last century.

Cholesterol

For the last 50 years, the media has overwhelmed us with the heart health merits of a low-cholesterol diet. “Meat and eggs will clog your arteries,” we’re warned. “Keep it under 300 mg of cholesterol a day,” they caution. The truth is clear, though: even the researchers who started the cholesterol craze no longer believe that dietary cholesterol has anything to do with the risk of heart disease.

Ancel Keys (a.k.a. “Monsieur Cholesterol”) was partly responsible for proliferating the cholesterol myths in the early 1900s. Even he later discounted the idea that dietary cholesterol causes heart disease, saying “It is now clear that dietary cholesterol per se, which is contained in almost all foods of animal origin, has little or no effect on the serum cholesterol concentration in man.”

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Paleo Compass

Early studies that kicked off the cholesterol scare showed that if you fed rabbits a high-cholesterol diet, it caused atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up on the walls of their arteries. That would be terrible news if rabbits’ dietary needs were anything like our own. However, they’re specifically designed to eat mostly plants, unlike humans. It’s like feeding pork chops to a cow and being surprised when it gets sick.

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In 1970, the Framingham Heart Study, one of the largest and most influential studies on heart health done to date, concluded that dietary cholesterol had absolutely no effect on serum cholesterol levels (the cholesterol levels your doctor tests). In 1971, one of the researchers from that study, George Mann, went on to examine the primitive Maasai people in Africa, who eat mainly raw cow’s milk and meat. Their overwhelming lack of heart disease led Mann to conclude that “The diet-heart hypothesis has been repeatedly shown to be wrong, and yet, for complicated reasons or pride, profit and prejudice, the hypothesis continues to be exploited by scientists, fund-raising enterprises, food companies, and even governmental agencies. The public is being deceived by the greatest health scam of the century.”

Why All the Cholesterol Fuss?

Despite the fact that even the originators of the cholesterol hype are now abandoning their initial claims, the general public, food manufacturers, and medical professionals still clutch to their fear of eating eggs and meat. The theory goes like this: heart disease is correlated with high levels of cholesterol in the blood, so lowering dietary cholesterol should decrease the chances of developing heart disease. In reality, that over-simplified theory is severely flawed. Here’s why.

Cholesterol is such a necessary component of the human body that we produce anywhere from 1,000 to 1,400 milligrams of the stuff on our own every day (a lot more than the 180 milligrams you’ll find in an egg). We need it to make hormones, bile, every one of your cell membranes, skin, and brain cells, among other things. When we eat dietary cholesterol from animal foods, our body uses what it needs and excretes the rest.

Aside from a small percentage of people, our intelligent bodies regulate cholesterol by producing less of it in response to eating it. A 2006 study published in Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care clearly showed that 70 percent of the population’s blood cholesterol levels were unaffected by eating eggs, while 30 percent had an increase in both low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL).

Definition

Low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol is a combination of protein, triglycerides, and cholesterol that transports cholesterol from the liver to other cells of the body for use. High-density lipoprotein (HDL) or “good” cholesterol is a combination of protein, triglycerides, and cholesterol that transports cholesterol from cells of the body back to the liver.

An increase in LDL and HDL is not necessarily a bad thing. LDL was once thought to be the “bad” cholesterol, but further investigation has shown that a few other things are more important risk factors for heart disease:

Small, dense LDL particles[md]we’ll call it the “bad LDL” and specifically those that are oxidized, may be one of the real culprits of heart disease. The small, dense, bad LDL is more susceptible to oxidation than the more stable, large, buoyant LDL, which we’ll call the “good LDL.” Good LDL is the kind of LDL that increases in some people when they eat dietary cholesterol and saturated fat. On the other hand, bad LDL can increase when you eat a carbohydrate-rich Western diet. Translation: cholesterol and saturated fat are fine; excess simple carbohydrates are not.

Excess fructose (refined sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, etc.), lack of exercise, smoking, excessive alcohol, high blood sugar from eating too many simple carbs, and omega-6 fatty acids can all cause oxidation of bad LDL.

Oxidized LDL is associated with “plaque ruptures,” which happen when plaque build-up breaks off artery walls and causes strokes and heart attacks. Plaque is made up of a disproportionate amount of linoleic acid, an omega-6 fatty acid found in “heart-healthy” vegetable oils. They’ve found that the amount of linoleic acid in the bloodstream is determined by how much of it you eat.

Another contributing factor to heart disease is damage to the arterial walls caused by a high-carbohydrate diet, smoking, stress, high omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, and trans fats.

A Faulty Theory

Remember that the “lipid theory,” as it’s known, goes like this: heart disease is caused by high levels of cholesterol in the blood, so lowering dietary cholesterol should decrease the chances of developing heart disease. We now know that:

  • Dietary cholesterol has little to no effect on blood cholesterol levels.
  • The effect dietary cholesterol may have on blood cholesterol does not necessarily lead to heart disease. In fact, high levels of blood cholesterol aren’t, and have never been, a reliable predictor of heart disease.
  • The lifestyle and dietary habits that actually contribute to heart disease are the same that lead to obesity and diabetes: too many omega-6 fatty acids, which help promote chronic inflammation of the arterial walls; high glycemic foods like sugar and refined grains; and not exercising.

The original theory was wrong in every way, and even the original propagators of that theory know it. Your arteries don’t get clogged by animal fat. That’s just not the way it works.

Saturated Fat

This brings us to that evil substance, saturated fat. Or, at least that’s what we’re supposed to think of it. Saturated fat can, in fact, raise LDL levels, but it raises the good LDL we talked about before, which doesn’t increase the incidence of heart disease. In fact, a paper by Siri-Tarino et al., published in 2010 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, reviewed 21 studies, including 347,747 subjects, and concluded, “There is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD or CVD [heart disease].” But before scientists, even scientists who endorsed the Paleolithic diet were aware of the distinction between the different kinds of LDL, they demonized saturated fat, including plant sources like coconut oil and palm oil.

Coconut oil or palm oil is actually a great source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of saturated fat that can be used very quickly as energy in the body. In many studies, MCTs have been shown to help people lose weight. One of the fatty acids in coconut oil, lauric acid, is a powerful antiviral and can also increase HDL, the “good” cholesterol in your body. So much for coconut oil’s bad reputation!

Clearing Up Some Paleo Confusion

In his first book, The Paleo Diet (see Appendix B), Loren Cordain decried saturated fat as a heart disease promoter. He urged people to either eat very lean cuts of meat that were mostly protein, or to eat grass-fed animals that have a lower saturated fat content. In light of the new research on the distinction between the different kinds of LDL and the importance of oxidation, this statement was made on Cordain’s website (thepaleodiet.blogspot.com) in 2010: “The bottom line is that we do not recommend cutting down saturated fatty acid intake but rather decrease high-glycemic load foods, vegetable oils, refined sugars, grains, legumes and dairy.”

It’s important to note that eating Western foods along with eating a lot of fatty animal foods may increase your chances of creating oxidized LDL, and therefore heart disease, because the saturated fat increases LDL and the Western diet oxidizes it. When looking at the arteries of the frozen remains of ancient Alaskan Inuit people and recent autopsies of the modern African Masai, researchers found they did, in fact, have atherosclerosis, or plaque build-up in their arterial walls. However, there was no sign of any heart attacks or stroke, and no other record of them. The researchers believe that without the underlying inflammation and oxidation caused by Western foods, the plaque doesn’t break off to cause heart attacks or strokes. This is yet another reason to eat a Paleolithic diet…


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6 Comments

  1. Dr. Peter Attia wrote a post at his blog here: (http://waroninsulin.com/nutrition/the-straight-dope-on-cholesterol-part-v?utm_source=rss&utm_medium=rss&utm_campaign=the-straight-dope-on-cholesterol-part-v) that calls into question the conclusion that small dense LDL is a meaningful independent risk factor for heart disease, discussing analysis that when you control for particle number, the association between small dense LDL and atherosclerosis vanishes. I’d be curious to hear this author’s thoughts.

  2. Don’t forget about Bruce Fife’s book, The Coconut Oil Miracle. A little over-the-top sometimes, but great information.

  3. Hi Neely,

    I’m Phalakone, a new Paleo adept who was wondering if Coconut oil was Paleo or not.

    Your post makes total sense defining the HDL and LDL but I still don’t understand why Dr Cordain does not consider the Coconut oil in his book “The Paleo Diet”. In fact he only considers 4 oils: walnuts, olive, flaxseed and avocado.

    I’m just a little bit lost about what different people are telling about the bacon also and I’d like to have a clear answer about that since I just started a new blog about my new way to eat (http://stay-in-shape.com)

    Thanks a lot.

    • Neely

      Hi Phalakone –

      Dr. Cordain has sort of rescinded his initial statements about coconut oil. Here’s a blog post by him about it from 2010, and I’m sure he has other things to say about it in his new book, The Paleo Answer, too.

      http://thepaleodiet.blogspot.com/2010/01/more-on-coconut-oil.html

      As for bacon, Cordain doesn’t really love bacon because it’s a very fatty food and he likes to see people eating meat that’s more protein dense, so as to mimic the ratio of fat:protein that hunter gatherers ate/eat on average. Others, like myself, have no problem with high fat diets, especially in conjunction with lower carbohydrate intake – “lower” meaning lower than the average Westerner. I don’t ever suggest that anyone eat crappy bacon with nitrates/nitrites and fillers like corn and preservatives. If you’re going to eat bacon, buy it from a reputable source that feeds its pigs properly and doesn’t add any unnecessary ingredients to the product. Hope that helps.

  4. Why not just avoid accumulating plaque in the first place?

  5. Hi Neely:
    Not sure if you remember me but I “met” you on your other post. You gave me your opinion on “food combining” and “carrageenan free” paleo approved milk.

    Anyway, I am including a lot of sweet potatoes and yams in my diet now. However, I noticed those have high glycemic loads (20+).

    Isn’t that counter intuitive to the Paleo objective (to lower insulin spikes / glucose levels in the blood)? Please knock some sense into me:)

    Much Mahalo,
    Charlie

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