As I always do when preparing to give a seminar or workshop, I’ve been delving deep into the scientific literature on how fats and oils affect the human body to prepare for the Plant-Powered Oil-Free Cooking workshop that I held last Saturday.
As I explained to workshop participants, consuming oils has adverse effects on our body weight and composition; gut health; blood sugar regulation; risk of cardiovascular risk and cancer; and joint and skin health. There is a substantial body of research on each of these important topics, and most of it contradicts the health advice dished out by the vast majority of popular health websites, books and programs.
One of the most striking disconnects between what research shows us, and what the public is being told, is in the area of intestinal hyperpermeability, or ‘leaky gut’. Intestinal hyperpermeability is now recognised as a key driver of inflammation, the process that drives the development of atherosclerosis (clogging of the arteries with cholesterol-laden plaque, which causes heart attacks, strokes, peripheral vascular disease, erectile dysfunction, chronic low back pain and dementia), metabolic syndrome, cancer, and autoimmune conditions, among others.
And what’s one of the first things the average punter is likely to come across if he or she googles ‘how to fix leaky gut’? Coconut oil. Website after website makes claims like these:
“The healthy saturated fats [in coconut oil] are an integral part to healing your gut. Lauric, capric and caprylic acids in coconut oil have antimicrobial, antifungal and antiviral properties. This is a real food medicine way to gently clean your GI system.“
“Antimicrobial short- and medium-chain saturated fats, like those found in coconut oil and other coconut products, help to reduce overgrowth of bad yeast, fungus and bacteria in the small intestine. Medium chain saturated fats are very gentle on the cells that line the gut since they can be passively absorbed without being broken down by digestive enzymes and used for energy without any modification. This source of easy energy is very helpful for healing the lining of the gut.”
It’s noteworthy that not a single one of those claims that coconut oil helps to heal leaky gut is referenced. And that would be because there is zero, zilch and zip scientific evidence for them.
In fact, the medium chain triglycerides that coconut oil advocates wax lyrical about, are actually used to increase drug absorption by increasing the permeability of mucous membranes, including the gut. Lauric and capric acids, which respectively make up about 50% and 8% of coconut oil, were found to rapidly increase the permeability of human intestinal cells, an effect which lasted for over 40 minutes.
The notion that medium chain saturated fats provide a “source of easy energy… helpful for healing the lining of the gut” is utter nonsense. The cells lining the small intestine mostly use amino acids as a fuel source; the medium chain triglycerides absorbed from food are sent to the liver which uses them as a fuel.
And the idea that saturated fat is good for gut bacteria is ludicrous – high saturated fat intake causes overgrowth of gram negative bacteria (such as E. coli), which produce the inflammatory compound endotoxin.
As for the claim that coconut oil “gently clean[s] your GI system”, I am simply lost for words. Surely there should be a law against this kind of gross stupidity?
The sad reality is that the most articles and books on health that are written for the general public, are full of misinformation, distortion, oversimplification and just plain Making Stuff Up. The majority of people writing these materials simply don’t have the education in science to be able to research the topics that they write about, or to understand the research that they encounter.
And unfortunately, that leaves the general public completely vulnerable to misinformation that can do them serious harm.
A major goal of my EmpowerEd membership program is to equip people who don’t have a background in science to be able to assess the information on health that they encounter in popular books, magazines and online, using some basic criteria that are easily learned and understood.
As an EmpowerEd member, you will also get access to the video recording and fully-referenced slides from the Plant-Powered Oil-Free Cooking workshop, in which I debunk a whole lot of other Made Up Stuff about oils!