The American Heart Association (AHA) has released a report attacking coconut oil: “Because coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol, a cause of CVD [cardiovascular disease], and has no known offsetting favourable 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 — making it less healthy than even butter (63%). Juggernaut spoke to Rujuta Diwekar about this latest finding:
Juggernaut Books (JB): Rujuta, do you believe there is any merit to this report?
Rujuta Diwekar (RD): Well, they looked at seven studies. If they looked at 70, they would have a different kind of advisory. For example, they didn’t look at what it did to HDL, another cholesterol molecule which has cardioprotective properties. If they did, they would want to go back on their words. And I suspect they will. It’s a matter of time. The science on saturated fat and how it is not a risk factor for heart diseases is out there Now it’s only about not staying blind to hardcore evidence.
JB: What exactly is LDL cholesterol?
RD: A molecule that does many functions in the body, including transporting of fats. And using cholesterol levels as a surrogate measure for assessing risk to heart disease has been questioned and widely debated.
There is clear evidence to prove that cholesterol is not the bad guy it is made out to be, thanks to pharma companies wanting to sell statins (a drug to lower cholesterol levels), which incidentally is amongst the highest selling drug in the world.
JB: What do you think of studies of this kind which are routinely released from American health associations?
RD: That they should look at food in totality and not as a sum total of individual parts or nutrients. Because then you only keep getting it wrong and further fuel public confusion on what to eat and what to avoid. One day fat is bad, the next day it is okay and only saturated fat is bad. Then it’s okay but only up to 6% of total calories – which no one knows how to count.
As the public, we should always look at who funds the associations that serve public health. Is it food corporations and pharma? Then we should take all advice with a pinch of salt, don’t you think?
And as a country, we should grow up. We have no business staying umbilically connected to the American guidelines, at least on food. We have a different food pattern from theirs, in fact, what is applicable in Delhi is not even relevant in Rohtak.
And then, we need better editors in mainstream media who ask their writers if the title or the headline really justify the content of the study or the article? So we need better reporting, transparent studies that more than clearly state conflict of interest and an educated public that doesn’t depend on tabloid headlines to make decisions on food.
JB: Is saturated fat really such a big bad thing?
RD: There is no such thing as a bad thing. The only really bad thing is to replace saturated fat with vegetable oils like the way the guidelines suggest. The bad thing is to stay blind to the tons of scientific evidence that saturated fat is not linked to heart disease.
Also, saturated fats have always existed in nature, breast milk is dominantly saturated fat as is dairy or even coconut for that matter. But then even within saturated fats there are types, the medium chain, long chain etc.
The question to ask is, is it naturally rich in fat? If yes, have it bindaas. Don’t leave out the yolk or process the milk to make it low in fat. Processing naturally fat food to turn it into low on fat is the bad thing. Ask any biochemist, they love the structure of the saturated fat, it’s beautiful you know, nice and stable.
JB: A study done at Cornell University showed coconut oil had a higher proportion of medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) than most other fats or oils which actually increase the rate of metabolism. The current report claims that the Cornell researchers used a “designer oil” packed with 100% MCTs. Traditional coconut oil, on the other hand, only contains about 13 to 15%. What do you think of this statement?
RD: No one should be reducing coconut oil to just MCTs, there’s much more to coconut than just one type of fat. In India, we use it in all forms from tender to dry coconut from Biryanis to laddoos. So while coconut is great, I am no fan of adding coconut oil to coffee for turning it into bulletproof coffee but I am all for eating deep fried banana chips in coconut oil while on a backwaters cruise in Kerala.
It is really about preserving our common sense here, add regular full-fat milk to your coffee or chai and enjoy the coconut in the multiple ways we have known it. Keep your end of the bargain at all times, don’t buy western fears and also don’t buy their fads. Focus on enjoying the chai with the bhajiya because soon normal rains may be extinct and pray for that and farmer well-being while you are at it. Our global outlook should not divorce us from our roots or local issues.
JB: Are there good fats and bad fats?
RD: There are naturally existing fats and fats that come from packaged food. Avoid packaged food and eat plain simple real food.
JB: Should Indians ever listen to dietary advice from international health bodies?
RD: No. We should stop being brainwashed by our education=English, the doctor=always correct and America=boss equations, and listen to the language of common sense and love that our grandmom speaks. That’s timeless wisdom. That’s the stuff that the world needs to address issues like public health and climate change. Our diversity, especially in the way we eat, is our strength, we must preserve it.
Read Rujuta’s book “Indian Superfoods” here.