Saturated fat is still bad for you… and coconut oil is not exempt

One of the most disturbing trends I’ve witnessed in recent years is the number of vegans who have fallen for the ‘saturated fat is good for you’ propaganda. Every week, I see multiple comments in vegan Facebook groups that I belong to, claiming that “The dangers of saturated fat have been exaggerated”, “You need saturated fat for your hormones”, “Saturated fat helps heal your gut”, and of course, the ubiquitous “Coconut oil is good for you!”

The message that the dangers of saturated fat have been overstated, has been crafted and heavily promoted by the animal products industry, in particular the dairy industry – unsurprisingly, since dairy products are one of the major sources of saturated fat in countries with Westernised diets.

In November 2008, dairy industry representatives got together in Mexico City to develop strategies to “neutralize the negative impact of milkfat by regulators and medical professionals.” Their primary tactic was to recruit and fund researchers sympathetic to the dairy industry, to produce studies on saturated fat intake that would paint it in a more favourable light, present their findings at scientific conferences, and issue public statements on the harmlessness of saturated fat.

And it worked like a charm – two of the products of this campaign, which have become known as the Siri-Tarino and Chowdhury meta-analyses, garnered world-wide media attention, and are now widely cited by Paleo and ketogenic diet advocates. For a detailed tear-down of how flawed these meta-analyses (the first of which was, as its Author Statement divulges, “Supported by the National Dairy Council”) are, and exactly how the researchers manipulated the data to reach conclusions favourable to saturated fat, visit PlantPositive.com.

What I want to focus on in this post, however, is the most recent Presidential Advisory issued by the American Heart Association, published in the journal Circulation. A team of experts – most of whom receive no grant founding, speakers’ fees, honoraria or other financial support from either the food or pharmaceutical industries – led by the venerable Frank Sacks, lead developer of the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH-diet), combed through the published literature on saturated fat, going back to the 1950s.

Laboratory studies, animal studies, epidemiological (population-based) studies, clinical trials, systematic reviews and meta-analyses were all carefully analysed, resulting in a 25 page document with 139 references. And what did they conclude? Saturated fat is still, without a doubt, bad for your heart:

“Taking into consideration the totality of the scientific evidence, satisfying rigorous criteria for causality, we conclude strongly that lowering intake of saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fats, especially polyunsaturated fats, will lower the incidence of CVD [cardiovascular disease].”

And not just bad for your heart, either:

“Prospective observational studies in many populations showed that lower intake of saturated fat coupled with higher intake of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat is associated with lower rates of CVD and of other major causes of death and all-cause mortality.”

That’s all other major causes of death, including cancer.

There are 2 main messages from the report that vegans need to take on board. #1 is that pulling saturated fat out of the diet, and replacing it with refined carbohydrate foods like the Oreo cookies, cakes and doughnuts I see posted on every vegan Facebook group that I belong to, won’t do you any good. As the authors stated:

“In contrast, replacement of saturated fat with mostly refined carbohydrates and sugars is not associated with lower rates of CVD and did not reduce CVD in clinical trials.”

And #2 is that coconut oil – seemingly beloved of vegans everywhere – is no better than animal-sourced saturated fat when it comes to heart disease:

“A recent systematic review found 7 controlled trials… that compared coconut oil with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated oils. Coconut oil raised LDL cholesterol in all 7 of these trials, significantly in 6 of them. The authors also noted that the 7 trials did not find a difference in raising LDL cholesterol between coconut oil and other oils high in saturated fat such as butter, beef fat, or palm oil. Clinical trials that compared direct effects on CVD of coconut oil and other dietary oils have not been reported. However, because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD, and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against the use of coconut oil.”

(For more of the low-down on what’s wrong with coconut oil, read my article Coconut oil: beyond the hype.)

There is one glaring weakness in this otherwise excellent review. Although the authors point out that “Evidence from prospective observational studies indicates that carbohydrates from whole grains reduce CVD when they replace saturated fat”, they state that:

“a trial has never been conducted to test the effect on CHD outcomes of a low-fat diet that increases intake of healthful nutrient-dense carbohydrates and fiber-rich
foods such as whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and legumes that are now recommended in dietary guidelines.”

Excuse me????? Drs Dean Ornish and Caldwell Esselstyn have both conducted just trials, and have published their findings in peer-reviewed medical journals, as I’ve discussed in several previous articles: here, here and here. I have no idea how these seminal papers were missed by Frank Sacks and his team – especially since Ornish’s heart disease reversal program is US Medicare-funded – but hopefully their next review will include the pioneering work of Ornish and Esselstyn, which continues to this day.

Confused about fat? Don’t know how to make your food taste good without it? I’ve got you covered :). My EmpowerEd health and nutrition education program is packed with resources on how to implement this way of eating, including video recordings of my full-day Empowered Eating seminar and Plant-Powered Oil-Free Cooking workshop; Healthy Eating 101 which covers kitchen set-up, meal planning and batch cooking; and 2 live webinars per month – an open Q&A session and an in-depth exploration of an important health topic. Your first month of membership is 100% free. Register here and get EmpowerEd to live your best life!

 

 

 

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2 Comments

  • Sean rowe

    Reply Reply August 1, 2017

    Hi Robyn, I just want to thank you for your work. I have so many people talk about how stupid and crazy i am for not even eating oil. “And what about coconut oil?” people say. This write up is really informing and helpful in telling people why i don’t even eat coconut oil.
    Please continue your great work and I can’t wait to meet you one day.
    Thanks
    Sean rowe😊

    • Robyn Chuter

      Reply Reply August 1, 2017

      You are so welcome, Sean – and you are absolutely not crazy for avoiding oil :). Dr Caldwell Esselstyn’s ground-breaking work with patients with advanced coronary artery disease clearly shows the superiority of an oil-free, low-fat wholefood plant-based diet over the oil-rich Mediterranean diet, which has never been shown to actually reverse heart disease the way Esselstyn has been able to demonstrate.

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