What About Coconuts, Coconut Milk, and Coconut Oil MCTs?

Do the medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil and the fiber in flaked coconut counteract the negative effects on cholesterol and artery function?

Studies of populations who eat a lot of coconuts are “frequently cited” by those who sell coconut oil “as evidence that coconut oil does not have negative effects on cardiovascular health.” For example, there was an apparent absence of stroke and heart disease on the island of Kativa in Papua New Guinea. What were they eating? Their diets centered around tubers, like sweet potatoes, with fruits, greens, nuts, corn, and beans. Although they ate fish a few times a week, they were eating a largely whole food plant-based diet. It’s no wonder they may have had such low rates of artery disease. And, one of the whole foods they were eating was coconut, not coconut oil.

Now, if you go to Pukapuka, even more coconuts are eaten. In fact, as you can see at 0:51 in my video What About Coconuts, Coconut Milk, and Coconut Oil MCTs?, there’s even an island where coconuts make up most of what people eat—and they do get high cholesterol. How can a population eating 87 percent plant-based, with no dairy and only rare consumption of red meat, chicken, and eggs, have cholesterol levels over 200? Well, they’re eating all those coconuts every day. What are their disease rates like? We don’t know. There are no clinical surveys, no epidemiological death data, and no autopsies. Some EKGs were taken, which can sometimes pick up evidence of past heart attacks, but they found few abnormalities. The sample was too small to be a definitive study, though. And, even if they did have low disease rates, they weren’t eating coconut oil—they were eating coconut in its whole form.

Coconut oil proponents pointing to these studies is like the high fructose corn syrup lobby pointing to studies of healthy populations who eat corn on the cob or the sugar industry pointing to studies on fruit consumption and saying you can eat all the refined sugar you want. But fruit has fiber and so do coconuts. Just as adding psyllium fiber (Metamucil) to coconut oil can help blunt the adverse effects on cholesterol, fiber derived from defatted coconut itself can reduce cholesterol levels as much as oat bran. What’s more, the plant protein in coconuts, which is also missing from the oil, may help explain why whole coconuts may not have the same effects on cholesterol. Although coconut fat in the form of powdered coconut milk may not have the same effects on cholesterol as coconut oil, frequent consumption, defined as three or more times a week, has been associated with increased risk of vascular disease, stroke, and heart disease. And, no wonder, as coconut milk may acutely impair artery function as badly as a sausage and egg McMuffin.

Researchers tested three different meals including a Western high-fat meal that “consisted of an Egg McMuffin®, Sausage McMuffin®, 2 hash brown patties and a non-caffeinated beverage (McDonald’s Corporation)” a local high-fat meal, and an “isocaloric low-fat meal.” The study was conducted in Singapore, so the more traditional local high-fat meal was rice cooked in coconut milk and served with anchovies and an egg. These two different high-fat meals were put up against the same amount of calories in an unhealthy low-fat meal of Frosted Flakes, skim milk, and juice. At 3:21 in my video, you can see the artery function—that is, its ability to relax normally—before and after eating each of the three meals. Researchers found that artery function is significantly crippled within hours of consuming the McMuffins and also the local high-fat meal with coconut milk. So, whether the fat is mostly from meat and oil or from coconut milk, the arteries clamped down similarly, whereas that horrible sugary breakfast had no bad effect on artery function. Why? Because as terrible as the Frosted Flakes meal was, it had no saturated fat at all. (It also didn’t have contain any eggs, so that might have helped, too.)

Coconut oil proponents also try to argue that coconut oil has MCTs, medium-chain triglycerides, which are shorter-chain saturated fats that aren’t as bad as the longer-chain saturated fats in meat and dairy. You can’t apply the MCT research to coconut oil, though. Why not? Well, MCT oil is composed of MCTs—about 50 percent of the medium-chain fat caprylic acid and the other 50 percent of the MCT capric acid—whereas those MCTs make up only about 10 percent of coconut oil. Most of coconut oil is the cholesterol-raising, longer-chain saturated fats, lauric and myristic. “It is therefore inaccurate to consider coconut oil to contain either predominantly medium-chain fatty acids or predominantly medium-chain triglycerides. Thus, the evidence on medium-chain triglycerides cannot be extrapolated to coconut oil.”

It’s actually quite “a common misconception” that the saturated fat in coconut oil is comprised of mainly MCTs. Actually, as we discussed, coconut oil is mainly lauric and myristic, both of which have potent bad LDL cholesterol-raising effects. “Coconut oil should therefore not be advised for people who should or want to reduce their risk of CHD,” coronary heart disease, which is the number-one killer of U.S. men and women. The beef industry, for example, loves to argue that beef fat contains stearic acid, a type of saturated fat that doesn’t raise cholesterol. Yes, but it also has palmitic and myristic acids that, like lauric acid, do raise cholesterol, as you can see at 5:12 in my video.

If you compare the effects of different saturated fats, as you can see at 5:29 in my video, stearic acid does have a neutral effect on LDL, but palmitic, myristic, and lauric acids shoot it up—and, frankly, so may MCT oil itself, as it bumps up LDL 15 percent compared to control. Bottom line? “Popular belief”—spread by the coconut oil industry—“holds that coconut oil is healthy, a notion not supported by scientific data.” The science just doesn’t support it.

So, basically, “coconut oil should be viewed no differently” from animal sources of dietary saturated fat. A recent review published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology put it even more simply in its recommendations for patients. When it comes to coconut oil, “avoid.”

Okay, but doesn’t saturated fat boost HDL, the so-called good cholesterol? Check out Coconut Oil and the Boost in HDL “Good” Cholesterol.

Isn’t coconut oil supposed to be good for Alzheimer’s, though? See my video Does Coconut Oil Cure Alzheimer’s?

If you want to learn more about the original McMuffin artery studies, see The Leaky Gut Theory of Why Animal Products Cause Inflammation.

You may also be interested in Flashback Friday: Coconut Oil and Abdominal Fat.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What’s the Secret to Latino Longevity?

Latinos living in the United States tend to have “less education, a higher poverty rate, and worse access to health care” and “represent the ultimate paradigm of healthcare disparities,” with the highest rate of uninsured, lowest rates of health screening and counseling, and poorest levels of blood pressure and blood sugar control, as well as “other measures of deficient quality of care.” So they must have dismal public health statistics, right? According to the latest national data, the life expectancy of white men and women is 76 and 81 years, respectively, and that of black men and women is shorter by a handful of years. And Latinos? Amazingly, they beat out everyone.

Latinos live the longest.

This has been called the Hispanic Paradox (now also known as the Latino Paradox), which I explore in my video, The Hispanic Paradox: Why Do Latinos Live Longer?. Latinos have a 24 percent lower risk of premature death and “lower risks of nine of the leading 15 causes of death,” with notably less cancer and heart disease. This was first noticed 30 years ago but was understandably was met with great criticism. Maybe the data were unreliable? No, that didn’t seem to be it. Maybe only the healthiest people migrate? Turns out the opposite may be true. What about the “salmon bias” theory, which “proposes that Latinos return to their home country…to ‘die in their home’” so they aren’t counted in U.S. death statistics? That theory didn’t pan out either.

Systematic reviews “confirm the existence of a Hispanic Paradox.” Given the strong evidence, it may be time to accept it and move on to figuring out the cause. The very existence of the “Hispanic Paradox” could represent “a major opportunity to identify a protective factor for CVD [cardiovascular disease] applicable to the rest of the population.” After all, whatever is going on “is strong enough to overcome the disadvantageous effect” of poverty, language barriers, and low levels of education, health literacy, quality of healthcare, and insurance coverage. Before we get our hopes up too much, though, could it just be genetic? No. As foreign-born Latinos acculturate to the United States, as they embrace the American way of life, their mortality rates go up. So, what positive health behaviors may account for Latino longevity?

Perhaps they exercise more? No, Latinos appear to be even more sedentary. They do smoke less, however the paradox persists even after taking that into account. Could it be their diet? As they acculturate, they start eating more processed and animal-based foods, and consume fewer plant foods—and perhaps one plant food in particular: beans. Maybe a reason Latinos live longer is because they eat more beans. Although Latinos only represent about 10 percent of the population, they eat a third of the beans in the United States, individually eating four to five times more beans per capita, a few pounds a month as opposed to a few pounds per year. That may help explain the “Hispanic Paradox,” because legumes (beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils) cool down systemic inflammation.

In my video, you can see the mechanism researchers propose in terms of lung health. While cigarette smoking and air pollution cause lung inflammation, which increases the risk for emphysema and lung cancer, when we eat beans, the good bacteria in our gut take the fiber and resistant starch, and form small chain fatty acids that are absorbed back into our system and decrease systemic inflammation, which not only may inhibit lung cancer development, but also other cancers throughout the body. Latinos have the lowest rates of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer, and also tend to have lower rates of bladder cancer, throat cancer, and colorectal cancer for both men and women.

This “systemic inflammation” concept is also supported by the fact that when Latinos do get cardiovascular disease or lung, colon, or breast cancer, they have improved survival rates. Decreasing whole body inflammation may be important for both prevention and survival.

Asian Americans also appear to have some protection, which may be because they eat more beans, too, particularly in the form of tofu and other soy foods, as soy intake is associated with both preventing lung cancer and surviving it.

Hispanics also eat more corn, tomatoes, and chili peppers. A quarter of the diet in Mexico is made up of corn tortillas, and Mexican-Americans, whether born in Mexico or the United States, continue to eat more than the general population. Looking at cancer rates around the world, not only was bean consumption associated with less colon, breast, and prostate cancer, but consumption of rice and corn appeared protectively correlated, too.

Since NAFTA, though, the North American Free Trade Agreement, the Mexican diet has changed to incorporate more soda and processed and animal foods, and their obesity rates are fast catching up to those in the United States.

In the United States, Latinos eat more fruits and vegetables than other groups, about six or seven servings a day, but still don’t even make the recommended minimum of nine daily servings, so their diet could stand some improvement. Yes, Hispanics may only have half the odds of dying from heart disease, but it’s “still the number one cause of death among Hispanics. Therefore, the current results should not be misinterpreted to mean that CVD is rare among Hispanics.” Ideally they’d be eating even more whole plant foods, but one thing everyone can learn from the Latino experience is that a shift toward a more plant-based diet in general can be a potent tool in the treatment and prevention of chronic disease.

Data like this support my Daily Dozen recommendation for eating legumes ideally at every meal, and we have free apps for both iPhone and Android that can help you meet these dietary goals.

For more on the wonders of beans, split peas, chickpeas, and lentils, see my videos and love your legumes!:

What’s the best way to eat them? See Canned Beans or Cooked Beans? and Cooked Beans or Sprouted Beans?.

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

Don’t Let Their Divide and Conquer Strategy Work

Dietary changes appear to be shifting universally toward a diet dominated by higher intakes of calorie-dense foods, including corn syrup, sugar, animal products, and oils. This is all thanks to global agricultural policies that have built in a long-term focus on creating things like cheap corn. “Consumption of foods high in saturated and industrially produced trans fats, salt, and sugar is the cause of at least 14 million deaths every year.”

“Few governments prioritize health over big business. As we learned from experience with the tobacco industry, a powerful corporation can sell the public just about anything,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization. “This is not a failure of individual will-power. This is a failure of political will to take on big business.”

This is difficult terrain for many public health scientists. As discussed in my video The Healthy Food Movement: Strength in Unity, “It took five decades after the initial studies linking tobacco and cancer for effective public health policies to be put in place, with enormous cost to human health. Must we wait another five decades to respond to the similar effects of Big Food?”

They do have money on their side. The chemical, tobacco, and food industries have the luxury to share similar tactics with the drug companies because they have the resources to do so. By contrast, powerful and inexpensive health-promoting activities, such as eating a healthy diet, are actually “too cheap and not patented.”

Preventing cardiovascular disease “is not an easy task because it means engaging in a battle against strong industrial sectors; but it is possible with sufficient political courage and citizen support.”

In fact, it’s not only possible—it’s been done before. The move back to breastfeeding is a great example of action in public health nutrition that is still succeeding. Breastmilk doesn’t make anyone any money, so companies like Nestle pushed infant formulas and millions of babies may have died as a result. A global movement rose up and resulted in the passage of a code regulating the marketing of breastmilk substitutes. As the Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO) at the time said, “Without their constant lobbying, reminding us of our duty as public health officers…WHO simply would not have had the courage to get on with it.”

“What has this got to do with nutrition and food policy [now]? Everything, if we want to improve public health. We must seek out the food and nutrition equivalents of Greenpeace…we should be prepared to stand up and be counted…Might this put our jobs and careers on the line? You had better believe that it will.”

To do this, the healthy food movement needs to stay united.

Tobacco industry giant Philip Morris is still fighting into the 21st century. Their latest campaign, dubbed ‘‘Project Sunrise,’’ was launched to lead to the ‘‘dawn of a new day.’’ Their own internal Public Policy Plan Draft calls Project Sunrise “an explicit divide-and-conquer strategy against the tobacco control movement.” Indeed, according to Philip Morris, the number-one vulnerability of the anti-smoking movement is that their success “may blind organizations to carefully orchestrated efforts by the tobacco industry and its allies to accelerate turf wars and exacerbate philosophical schisms.” So, their main objectives were to attack the credibility of the anti-smoking movement, create schisms, and force them to fight amongst themselves. Think of how much of that we already do in the healthy food movement, and it just distracts us from the bigger picture.

One of Philip Morris’ primary strategies was to drive a wedge between various anti-smoking groups. Another was to weaken the their credibility, in part by developing communication strategies to “demonstrate the extremism of the health prevention movement. First tobacco, then alcohol, then meet (sic), then other products.” Not only are the tobacco lawyers a bit spelling challenged, but public health groups are part of a health promotion movement. Health prevention is more the purview of Big Ag.

Not only do public health nutrition groups fight amongst themselves—they sometimes even bed down with Big Food. See my videos Collaboration with the New Vectors of Disease and American Medical Association Complicity with Big Tobacco.

The True Health Initiative, spearheaded by Dr. David Katz, is a great example of the strength in unity concept I’m trying to get across. Please consider joining.

For more on unbelievable tobacco tactics, see:

In health,
Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:

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