The American Heart Association (AHA) recently released a report advising against coconut oil: “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favorable effects, we advise against [its] use.” AHA’s Dietary Fats and Cardiovascular Disease Advisory reviewed existing data on saturated fat, showing coconut oil increased LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in seven out of seven controlled trials. In fact, 82% of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, according to the data, far beyond butter (63%).
The AHA recommendations further advise to replace coconut oil with corn, soy or other vegetable oils. The recommendation is based on the fact that vegetable oils are rich in unsaturated fats and are hence, heart protective. So, to know what AHA is all about, we roped in the founder of Yuktahaar, Munmun Ganeriwal. The reknown nutritionist & fitness consultant was generous enough to throw some light on the entire concept of AHA. Here's what elaboration we came across.
Why the AHA got it all wrong?
The issue of oil replacement
There are enough scientific evidences that state that saturated fat is not a risk factor for heart diseases. A review study published in the British Medical Journal in 2016 looked at what happens when people stop consuming saturated fats and replace with vegetable oil fats. What turned out was that replacing saturated fat with vegetable oils actually increased a person’s risk of heart disease.
Corn, soy and other vegetables oils are high in linoleic acid (omega 6 fatty acids).
Our diet, which is more westernised these days, is anyways too rich in omega 6 fats and too light on omega 3s. Excessive amounts of omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) and a very high omega-6/omega-3 ratio promotes cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammatory and autoimmune diseases.
Cholesterol, not the bad boy!
The American Heart Association advises against the use of coconut oil because it says LDL cholesterol increases the risk of heart disease. But a study of more than 12,000 people found low cholesterol actually increased a person’s risk of dying early from heart disease, stroke and cancer. High cholesterol was NOT a risk factor for diseases. Besides the fact that measuring cholesterol as the best way to indicate heart disease has been questioned and widely debated, there’s another major takeaway I would like you to understand.
Cholesterol’s role in human health is crucial. You need it for various physiological and metabolic functions like optimal brain health and transportation of fats. And more and more science is telling us that high-cholesterol foods are NOT bad for us. For instance, a 2017 study published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found eggs and dietary cholesterol serve as antioxidants and a precursor to heart protective molecules like Vitamin D.
And, if you truly want to know what your cholesterol numbers should be in regard to risk for heart disease, you need to keep a check on your HDL: LDL cholesterol ratios, not the total cholesterol number. The AHA advice on coconut oil was based without taking into consideration the cardio-protective HDL cholesterol levels or the ratios.
Here’s a clearer explanation from Harvard Medical: “The ratio of total cholesterol-to-HDL is important; the smaller the number the better. For example, someone with a total cholesterol of 200 and an HDL of 60 would have a ratio of 3.3 (200 ÷ 60 = 3.3). If that person’s HDL was low, let’s say 35, the total cholesterol-to-HDL ratio would be higher: 5.7.”
Science keeps changing its mind
Somewhere in the 1980s, we were told that our indigenous oilseeds are bad for our heart and we were quick in switching to refined vegetable oils and virgin olive oil. Years later, experts advised that all fat and oils are bad except omega-3 fats. Then in April 2015, fats made a huge comeback with the USFDA saying that there is no upper limit to dietary fat intake and coconut was hailed as the super-food in the west. Come 2017, and now, we’re hearing that the same coconut oil is full of saturated fat that can cause heart attack. But then it also says that saturated fat up to 6% of total calories is really okay. What’s it going to be next week? Your guess is as good as mine.
Follow the timeless wisdom
The associations that are serving public health are funded by food corporations or pharmaceutical companies, and so you should be taking their advice with a pinch of salt. On the other hand, age old food wisdom has stood the test of time. Your grandmom’s advice carries no commercial interest and comes out of a sense of well being for you.
In India, since thousands of years, the oil our grandmoms have been using is largely dependent on where they came from. In Kerala, it's coconut oil, in Andhra and Rajasthan, it's the sesame oil, mustard oil is used in the east and north India and in Maharashtra, Gujarat and central India groundnut oil is used. Diverse cultures eat differently and the type of oil fitted beautifully into the food landscape of that region.
All our indigenous oilseeds be it coconut, mustard, groundnut or sesame are rich in antioxidants, essential fatty acids, phenols, vitamins and minerals. Not only do they offer the best omega-6/omega-3 ratio, their consumption also increases the good HDL cholesterol in our body. Just that the West has not yet woken up to its heart health and weight loss benefits.
Moreover, unlike olive oil and vegetable oils, these oils blend better with our Indian cuisine. They have high smoke points, which means their nutrients and qualities are retained and not lost at a higher cooking temperature which is most typical of Indian cooking.
Only ensure you use the cold pressed or filtered variety that is made by crushing the oilseeds under lower temperatures that will not degrade the oil. The nutrients, flavor, aroma and color is retained in filtered oils. Unlike industrial refining, this process does not use any solvents or chemicals.
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