Coconut Oil And Low Carb Diets: Are They Killing You?

If you've been paying attention this week to the media, you may have come across two major and shocking headlines: 

These clickbait headlines sure stir up panic and I am here to break both articles down for you and provide advice. 
 Coconut Oil is 'Pure Poison,' Harvard Professor Claims

This headline is so scary! A lot of people eating coconut oil are doing so for health benefits, so imagine the terror a coconut oil eater would feel coming across this headline. What's even more frustrating is that people are busy, so not everyone is going to take the time to read the article and instead be influenced by the headline alone.

Let's dive into what the website article says:

It states that coconut oil is dangerous because of it's high saturated fat content: "Michels and the AHA cite the tremendous amount of saturated contained in coconut oil, nearly 82 percent (worse than lard!)."  However, the SAME article also says: "But, saturated fat is a loaded term. While the AHA warns against it, people who cut saturated fat out of their diet might not necessarily lower their heart disease risk, a 2015 BMJ review suggested. That's because some people fill the void with sugar, white flour and empty calories. Also, some fat is important to help bodies absorb nutrients from other foods."  

So as you can see the headline is very deceiving. 

Thrive Nutrition's take on saturated fat and coconut oil: 

  • Saturated fat is not the primary driver of heart disease. There have been at least 17  systematic reviews and meta-analyses conducted in recent years that have not found a clear link between saturated fat consumption and heart disease. 
  • While saturated fats can be shown to raise the “bad” LDL-cholesterol, this elevated risk factor does not result in higher mortality rates, very likely reflecting a more complicated pathway for cardiovascular disease than simply LDL-C (i.e., saturated fats also consistently raise the “good” HDL-cholesterol, which may be a compensating effect).
  • A number of studies suggesting that saturated fat feeding in rodent and primate models results in the development of atherosclerosis. However, there are major differences in lipid metabolism between humans and rodents, and even between humans and nonhuman primates. This is a major problem with animal nutrition research.
  • While the AHA is a nonprofit organization, it receives significant funds from industry leaders. Representatives from companies like Nestlé, Coca-Cola, The Sugar Association, the United Soybean Board, and the US Canola Association also serve on its “Industry Nutrition Advisory Panel.” From the AHA website:

“The American Heart Association’s Industry Nutrition Advisory Panel (INAP) is a unique, strategic relationship between the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee and food industry leaders. In existence since 1995, INAP provides a platform for open dialogue, sharing of information and planning cooperative programs in areas of mutual interest such as diet and nutrition and cardiovascular disease.”

  • The Verdict: Eating more healthy fat (not vegetable oils or trans fats) is satiating, reduces cravings for sugar and carbs and helps stabilize blood sugar levels while also promoting fat burning. Coconut oil is also a healthy fat, however since coconuts are processed into the oil, eat in moderation and eat a variety of other fats like avocados, cold-pressed olive oil, raw nuts and seeds, pastured dairy and eggs and grass-fed/wild-caught animals.

Low-carb diets could shorten life, study suggests

Last week, a new study was published in The Lancet Public Health that claimed to find that both very-low- and very-high-carb diets shorten our lifespan. Predictably, the mainstream media jumped on this finding without doing a shred of due diligence—more on that below—and we were subjected to splashy headlines like this:

Unfortunately, this study has already been widely misinterpreted by the mainstream media, and that will continue because:

  1. Most media outlets don’t have science journalists on staff anymore
  2. Even so-called “science journalists” today seem to lack basic scientific literacy

A recap of the study is: A low-carb diet could shorten life expectancy by up to four years and it indicates that moderate carb consumption is healthier. After following the group for an average of 25 years, researchers found that those who got 50-55% of their energy from carbohydrates (the moderate carb group and in line with UK dietary guidelines) had a slightly lower risk of death compared with the low and high-carb groups. 

Problems with the study:

  • Using observational data to draw conclusions about causality. An observational study is one that draws inferences about the effect of an exposure or intervention on subjects where the researcher or investigator has no control over the subject. It’s not an experiment where they are directing a specific intervention (like a low-carb diet) and making things happen. Instead, the researchers are just looking at populations of people and making guesses about the effects of a diet or lifestyle variable. You can establish a correlation or an association between two variables, but you can’t establish causation conclusively.
  • Carbohydrates in the study included vegetables, fruit and sugar but the main source of them is starchy foods, such as potatoes, bread, rice, pasta and cereals. The failing of this study is that it is fcusing exclusively on diet quantity and ignoring quality. 
  • Low carb was not actually low carb! Low carb was designated as 30%-40% of their calories from carbs, which in Thrive Nutrition's standards is a high carb diet! Further, participants that were following a "low-carb diet" were not following a Paleo-type low-carb diet that is rich in natural, whole foods. The researchers themselves point this out. 

By contrast, the animal-based low carbohydrate dietary score was associated with lower average intake of both fruit and vegetables (appendix pp 9, 10).

  • The study relied on people remembering the amount of carbohydrates they ate by filling out questionnaires on the food and drink they consumed. Food questionnaires are notoriously inaccurate for a number of reasons. First, people almost always under report the "bad" food they eat (will report smaller serving sizes or omit food altogether) and overreport the "good" food they eat. Second, people often forget what they ate. Try journaling all of the food and portion sizes you ate in the last 24 hours and see how hard it is! Third, people don’t weigh or otherwise measure portion sizes and "eyeballing it" can be highly inaccurate. Also, people find tracking every bite and meal inconvenient. In this study, people were asked to report on what they ate over a previous six-year period!

The media loves sensationalized headlines and fails to provide accurate information. It's always good to be cautious and take what they say with a grain of salt (or a tablespoon of coconut oil)!