Doctor’s column: Are olive oil an coconut oil health foods?
ABOUT THIS COLUMN
Greg Feinsinger of Carbondale, who retired in February from Glenwood Medical Associates after 41 years as a family physician, is writing a 10-week series.
• Diabetes and prediabetes
• What causes heart attacks
• How to prevent heart attacks
• What diet is most healthful?
• Why don’t doctors advise going vegan?
The short answer to our headline is no, but let me explain. First of all, any oil, whether coconut or olive or other, has 120 calories per tablespoon. Most Americans need to lose weight, so they should avoid oils due to the concentrated calories. Second, we should be eating unprocessed foods, and plant oils are processed, with a lot of nutrients being lost during the processing.
Dr. Michael Greger (nutritionfacts.org) compares plant oils to drinking fruit juice rather than eating the fruit itself: there is a very poor nutrient per calorie ratio. Third, all oils have been shown to damage the endothelial lining of the arteries, a very important but delicate organ system. Fourth, many studies link increased rates of heart attacks and strokes, and several types of cancer, to high fat intake.
People who profit from selling coconut oil and other coconut products (other than coconut water, which is OK), would have you believe that coconut is the new miracle food, curing everything from Alzheimer’s to cardiovascular disease. But this hype is not based on science.
It is clear that there is a relationship between the level of LDL (bad cholesterol) and risk of atherosclerosis, which is what causes heart attacks and most strokes, the main killers in the United States. It is also clear that saturated fat raises LDL. If you look at the percentage of saturated fat in various plant oils, canola has the least (7 percent), olive oil has twice that amount, and coconut has the most at 90 percent.
Coconut fans make health claims for the medium chain fatty acids in coconut products. But to quote Dr. Greger, “Coconut oil manufacturers, like those in the beef industry, love to point out some of the fatty acids in their products may not be harmful while conveniently ignoring their products also contain the kinds of saturated fat that can significantly increase LDL.”
I recently attended the annual Metabolic Syndrome Symposium put on by the University of Colorado School of Medicine in Denver, and a dietitian gave a talk in which she presented a case of a young man with ADD who lived with his mother in Boulder. His mother had heard that coconut oil helped kids with ADD and she started giving him a lot of it, daily. He ended up in the Lipid Clinic at the Medical School and had one of the highest total cholesterols they had ever seen, close to 1,000 with an LDL in the 400 range. The doctors there were so concerned about his immediate risk for a heart attack they were considering doing a special procedure to remove the cholesterol from his blood, but decided first try taking him off the coconut. A few weeks later his lipids were normal.
This may be an extreme case, but there is no hard science to support coconut being a health food, and there is sound evidence that it can cause harm. Regarding Alzheimer’s, the only study that has been done showed coconut provided no benefit.
Olive oil is another sacred cow for some but has similar issues. As pointed out above, although it has much less LDL-raising saturated fat than coconut oil, it still has a moderate amount (15 percent). Some experts say that the monounsaturated fat in olive oil is a healthy fat, and olives and olive oil are part of the Mediterranean Diet, currently touted as a healthy diet. It indeed is healthier by far than the S.A.D. (Standard American Diet), but that is because it includes more fruit and vegetables and whole grains than most Americans eat.
Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn, in his book “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” points out that the medical literature is full of studies showing the dangers of monounsaturated fats, including people on the Mediterranean Diet still dying from heart attacks and strokes, whereas they aren’t on the plant-based, whole-foods, low-fat diet.
So it is best to avoid oils of any kind, and that is easy to do in cooking. For example, if you are baking and the recipe calls for oil, substitute ground flaxseed or unsweetened apple sauce. And you can sauté with water or vegetable broth.
Of course we all need some fat in our diet, but plants have healthy polyunsaturated fats. Use unsalted pumpkin and sunflower seeds on salads, eat a handful of walnuts or pecans or almonds a day. If you are totally plant-based and avoiding fish, a tablespoonful of ground flaxseed (keep refrigerated) a day plus a tablespoon of chia seeds a day (don’t need to refrigerate this) provides the omega 3s you need, and to be safe also consider 250-500 mg. a day of algae-derived, vegan omega 3 pills.
Dr. Feinsinger is a retired family physician who is available for free consultations about heart attack prevention, plant based nutrition, and other health issues. Call 379-5718 for an appointment.
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