Seven in 10 Americans believe that coconut oil is a healthy food, but that’s not what the nation’s heart disease experts think.
“There’s no basis at all for that,” Frank Sacks, professor of cardiovascular disease prevention at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, told the Boston Herald. Sacks led a recent American Heart Association panel that reviewed the evidence for the role of dietary fats in cardiovascular disease (CVD).
Their conclusion: “we conclude strongly that lowering intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of CVD.”
That means skipping coconut oil, the panel advised, because 82 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated.
All seven trials in people comparing coconut oil with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils, like olive or canola oils, found that coconut oil raised LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels. This increase was statistically significant in six of the seven studies.
Since there are no benefits to coconut oil that would offset this downside to the oil, “we advise against the use of coconut oil,” the panel said. “You can put it on your body, but don’t put it in your body,” Sacks adds.
But doesn’t coconut oil help people lose weight?
Dr. Oz thinks it can. He called coconut oil “the miracle fat that fights fat.” Yet the only study that tested whether it helps people shed pounds came up empty.
In 2009, a master’s degree student in Brazil gave 40 obese women either coconut oil or soybean oil and asked them to cook with two tablespoons of the oil every day. After three months, the women given coconut oil didn’t weigh any less—and had no smaller waists—than those given soybean oil.
That’s the only study. But it was all that Internet osteopath-salesman Joseph Mercola needed to shout about “The Amazing Oil That Trims Women’s Waistlines” on mercola.com, where he will happily sell you coconut oil by the barrel.
But doesn’t coconut oil prevent Alzheimer’s disease?
“Four tablespoons of this ‘brain food’ may prevent Alzheimer’s.” That’s what Mercola claims about coconut oil. However, no good studies have shown that coconut oil can prevent or treat Alzheimer’s or other dementias.
The belief that coconut oil can help with dementia got its big push in 2008 when Florida pediatrician Mary Newport was desperately trying to help her husband Steve, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
She remembered reading on the Internet that a company claimed promising results from giving special fats extracted from coconut oil to Alzheimer’s patients. Thinking they had nothing to lose, Newport bought a jar of coconut oil from a health food store and put several tablespoons in her husband’s oatmeal the next morning.
That afternoon she was astonished to find that Steve could remember things like the day of the week, the month, the season, and what city he was in, all of which he had trouble doing the day before.
“He said he felt as if a light had switched on,” she recalled.
Mary Newport spreads the news
So began the Newports’ journey. Steve ate coconut oil every day, sometimes mixed with extra amounts of the special fats, which are called medium chain triglycerides (MCT). And Mary spread the word about coconut oil’s potential as an Alzheimer’s cure by writing a blog, lobbying scientists and politicians, and writing a book.
In 2015, Mary reported on how her husband Steve had been doing. “He improved very significantly and steadily the first year and remained stable for 2 more years,” she wrote on the website coconutketones.com. Then he fell, started having seizures, and never fully recovered.
Steve Newport passed away in 2016.
The idea behind coconut oil for the brain
“Our brains normally use only glucose for energy,” explains National Institutes of Health researcher Richard Veech, who worked with the Newports.
“But during fasting or starvation, when we draw on our fat stores for energy, our brains can switch to using products of fat metabolism called ketones as a replacement for glucose, provided the ketone levels get high enough in the brain.”
Early on in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, the brain starts to lose its ability to use glucose, which leads to a kind of starvation of the brain. But the brain can still use ketones.
The catch is getting enough
“If we could get the level of ketones in the brain up high enough in Alzheimer’s patients, the hope is that they can use this for energy in place of glucose and we may be able to restore some of the brain’s mental functions,” says Veech.
But don’t expect that to happen from consuming coconut oil or MCTs, Veech cautions. While cells produce ketones when they metabolize the medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil, “that doesn’t lead to levels anywhere near high enough in the brain to do much good,” he notes.
There still isn’t a good trial of coconut oil
An eagerly-awaited new trial of coconut oil in Alzheimer’s disease at the University of South Florida has been abandoned because of lack of funding and enough volunteers.
Source: “Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease: A Presidential Advisory From the American Heart Association.” Circulation June 15, 2017.
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