Coconut Oil: A Saturated Fat from Eden

November 03, 2008

Coconut Oil: A Saturated Fat from Eden                                            

Competency #13 Fats                            Reference: Soc Sci Med 16, 1539-1549, 1982 Report of the Tokelau Study 

 My head is spinning.  I have to figure this out.  Help!  As late as last week I cheerfully stated at a conference that you basically shouldn’t eat any oil grown south of Atlanta.  That was a way of poking a jab at palm oil and coconut oil.  These oils have been rapidly replacing many fats in our diet as food producers try to come up with alternatives to trans fats.  Indonesia is being deforested and will be replaced with huge plantations of palm oil producing palms.  All so that McDonald’s can say, “No trans fats in our fries”.  Both are more or less solid at room temperature and are considered saturated fats.  We have been on a bandwagon against saturated fats because they have been implicated with causing increases in inflammatory markers and mucking up our cholesterol.  

But are vegetable source saturated fats any different than animal source saturated fats? Here are the results of the Tokelau and Pukapuka Studies.  These two Pacific atolls are part of New Zealand.  They are quite remote and have had little infiltration of “western food”.  In fact, their diets are basically coconuts and fish.  “What’s for dinner, honey?” is easily answered, “Whaddya want, coconut or fish?”  That makes their diet very high in saturated coconut fat.  No sugar.  No white flour.  They have a rare pig or chicken.  

And they had virtually no coronary artery disease. Then a typhoon devastated the island and half of the population was moved to New Zealand because of overpopulation and water supply stress.  In New Zealand, they got access to “Western food”, and rapidly started gaining weight, developing diabetes and heart disease.  Now, the Tokelaus were getting 63% of their calories from coconut oil back on the island. And their cholesterol was high by 30-40 points, but they had no high blood pressure, diabetes, or heart disease until they moved to New Zealand. 

 Once on New Zealand, they started to develop high blood pressure, gain weight, become diabetic, develop gout, and have heart attacks.  The group left behind on the island didn’t.  This is like a controlled experiment.  One gene pool moved to a new world where they had access to westernized processed foods.   New Zealand is also farther away from the equator, so a change in sunshine amount also creates a Vitamin D change. 

 We’ve always assumed that your blood pressure going up was part of aging.  This longitudinal study has demonstrated that this is just not so.  It also suggests that coconut oil and the saturated fats in it aren’t so bad.  This population study is only one of about 10 similar ones that all show the same effect. (Maasai in Africa is another similar story).  Or could it be the effect of living in abundant sunshine, getting huge amounts of Vit D and abundant fish every day are the differentiating qualities?  Exercise? Stress? 

 WWW: What Will Work for me?  I’m having major cognitive dissonance.  I am rethinking my core anxiety about the saturated fat coconut oil.    My suspicion regarding sugars and white processed flour products grows.  I spent my childhood greasing my hair back with coconut oil.  Was that good for me?  Can’t go back to that.  No hair.  But I am eating sugar and processed carbohydrates.  Maybe I shouldn’t!

Column written by Dr. John E Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI. 53045 (262-784-5300)