Some of the readers have written to me asking whether coconut oil increase cholesterol levels or not. This is indeed a very important question and needs detail discussion from the basics.
Why this question at first place?
Why this question of coconut oil increasing cholesterol levels arise at the first place? The reason lies in the chemical composition of coconut oil. Coconut oil is one of the most saturated oils available today. With saturation level of more than 90% it is much more than other oils such as palm (50%), soybean (15%), corn (13%), olive (14%), peanut (17%), etc.
Saturated fats for long has been associated with various body disorders such as heart diseases, bone issues, cancer etc.
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Good and bad cholesterol
Now let us understand a bit about cholesterol because there are lot of misconceptions regarding this too. Contrary to general belief we need optimum levels of cholesterol in our body to keep it healthy. Cholesterol is essential for our cell structure and helps in establishing proper membrane permeability and fluidity.
Without going into too much in detail, there are basically two types of cholesterol - Good (HDL) and bad (LDL). LDL deposits in walls of blood vessels and causes diseases such as atherosclerosis. High level of LDL cholesterol is thus considered harmful for heart, etc.. On the contrary HDL is good cholesterol, it removes LDL from blood stream and helps keep heart healthy. It sends LDL to liver where it is processed again. Not only this HDL also helps in repair work of damaged inner walls of our blood vessels.
Why total cholesterol levels gives an incomplete picture
While high levels of LDL are not good for our health, low levels of HDL are bad for our health. But when you get your cholesterol levels checked what is noted is total cholesterol. Your cholesterol can also be high if you have high HDL which is indeed a good thing!
Researchers today express this in terms of a healthy HDL to LDL ratio. This ratio can remain favourable if HDL is high and LDL low. Cholesterol level is defined as - (Total cholesterol number / HDL number). According to American Heart Association the ideal cholesterol ratio is about 3.5:1. Cholesterol level is a better indicator as compared to total cholesterol while judging effects of a food.
Thus one can achieve ideal cholesterol ratio by increasing HDL or by reducing LDL.
Coconut oil and cholesterol
No one can deny the fact that some saturated fats indeed increase cholesterol levels in our body. But research shows that it is not true with all saturated fats, coconut oil is one exception. Most of the studies found that overall cholesterol levels by using coconut oil increases (slightly or almost remains neutral) but they hide an important fact - HDL rises more than LDL, thus the ratio is made more favourable. Studies have shown when subjects were given coconut oil their :
- HDL levels, i.e. good cholesterol rose
- Cholesterol ratio decreased, thus became more favourable
- Body weight levels came down
These observations are also shown by other research done using virgin coconut oil.
Another study has bring forth relation between thyroid and cholesterol. Thyroid suppression is related to high cholesterol levels. Coconut oil which promotes thyroid health helps in bringing cholesterol levels down. Another study reasons that use of coconut oil is great to control bad cholesterol because it converts it to pregnenolone. Thus bringing its levels down.
There is another angel to this too - the way coconut oil is used in our body. As coconut oil is made of medium chain fatty acids, it does not follow the same process of breaking down, storage etc. as long chain fatty acids do. In case of coconut, fatty acids are absorbed in intestine and then sent to liver for burning (conversion to energy). Thus unlike long chain fatty acids medium chained fatty acids of coconut oil do not add to cholesterol levels but provides energy. This the reason why coconut oil can also be used as energy booster.
Note on Coconut oil Cholesterol studies
Bruce Fife in Coconut Cures mentions several studies which indicate coconut oil is bad and increases cholesterol. One particular instance which is of great relevance is the study done by Ahrens in 1957. This study concluded that coconut oil raised cholesterol levels.
Mr. Fife indicates a serious issue with most of the studies which have been conducted on coconut oil, a very basic fact - the coconut oil used for the study is not virgin coconut oil but hydrogenated coconut oil. The results which these studies got were expected as hydrogenated oil are known to increase cholesterol levels. This is because hydrogenation leads to formation of trans fats which is very harmful for body especially for heart. Whenever coconut oil supporters have talked about benefits of coconut oil they indicate these all for natural / virgin or low processed oil and not hydrogenated one.
Other studies indicate slight rise in cholesterol levels but do not go deeper and mention that the rise in HDL is more than LDL thus making cholesterol ratio better not worse. For example, there were studies conducted on effect of lauric acid (dominant medium chained fatty acid in coconut oil) which concluded that overall cholesterol level increased but did not mention more increase in HDL as compared to LDL.
Live examples of coconut benefits to heart
The strongest evidence in favour of coconut (which I believe in) is what is the position of people who have been using coconut oil / coconut products for generations. There are several such places in the world, e.g. Philippines, etc. and heart related disease deaths are much lower (120 per 100,000 population) than most developed countries (USA - 814, Germany - 732, Canada - 701, etc.). One reason for the same is coconut consumption.
There have been data how with decrease of coconut oil and coconut consumption and subsequent acceptance of western lifestyle the heart failure and death incidences increased in places such as Sri Lanka.
I am in no way attributing full credit to use of coconut and coconut oil, as there so many other factors which play a part here but I do think coconut oil has a positive role in this situation.
References : Mercola, WebMD, Coconut Cures
If you are using coconut oil what do you think about its effect on cholesterol levels? Have they increased? how is the cholesterol ratio? Do share your thoughts so that others can benefit!