The Tokolau Island Coconut Study: Saturated Fat or Food from Paradise?

May 12, 2009

The Tokelau Island Coconut Study: Saturated Fat or Food from Paradise? 

 Competency # 13 Fats ReferencePhilippine Journal of Cardiology July-Sept 2003 3:97-104

Tokelau Island, a tiny coral atoll in the Pacific, is part of the smallest country and economy on this planet.  It is also the nation most at risk of global warming, being only a few feet above sea level.  We’ve done a column on Tokolau before talking about how the Tokelauns eat as much as 55% of their calories from saturated coconut oil and don’t have heart disease.  

We have also explored how some 50% of them migrated to New Zealand as their population increased and a hurricane damaged much of the island in the 1970s.  The migrants to New Zealand started eating much more sugar and white flour and started developing obesity, diabetes, and coronary artery disease.  The folks staying behind didn’t, eating 40-70% of their calories from saturated fat, coconut oil. 

 What’s the deal?  Do we understand why?  Well, in fact, we do.  The Philippine, Malaysian, and Indonesian medical communities have been intensely interested in this topic because their natural foods include tons of coconuts.  We have to look to them to find out. 

 Turns out, it’s all in the length of the fatty acids.  The coconut oil fat is actually several fats from 8 to 10 to 12 carbons long, compared to most animal fats that are around 16-18 carbons long.  That difference is critical.  We call those MEDIUM chain fatty acids (MCFAs).  They behave quite differently in your body.  Instead of being digested in the liver and turned into triglycerides and fatty acids in the LDL and VLDL family, they are immediately taken up in cells and digested.  

In fact, coconut oil tends to raise the HDL and lower the LDL:HDL ratio.  It tends not to be deposited in fat tissue.   And it’s not associated with coronary artery disease.  Net result: Sri Lanka has 1 death from coronary artery disease per 100,000 lives compared to the USA at around 37-40 per 100,000.  Research studies directly comparing corn and coconut oil shows that the HDL/LDL ratio drops on corn oil, even when the total cholesterol goes down. It’s the same story in the Philippines, they consume tons of coconut oil and have an inverse relationship of heart disease to the amount of coconut oil they eat.  

So, the Tokelau diet of high saturated fat is not atherogenic.  It’s not the saturated fat, it’s the saturated fat from animals that’s bad.  Probably critical to the formula on Tokelau Island is the presence of fish with abundant fresh omega-3 fatty acids, and lots and lots of sunshine. 

 WWW:  What will work for me.  I’m really curious.  I put coconut oil all over me to suntan as a teenager.  And I greased my hair with it, back when I had some.  Now, there is a buzz going around about coconut oil for other beneficial effects.  Is it an essential oil?  It sounds actually anti-atherogenic.  It’s good fat.  It fights heart disease.  I’m looking to buy some and see how it tastes, perhaps in a yogurt smoothie?  Or start cooking with it. 

This column was written by John E. Whitcomb, MD, Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI. (262-784-5300)