#087 Coconut Oil versus Olive Oil

Coconut Oil versus Olive Oil

Is coconut oil or olive oil best for the heart?  In this interesting interview, I press Dr. Jared Bunch to answer this and other questions based on an article he recently wrote on Everyday Health.

In this podcast interview we discuss the following topics:

1. Why is it that the Vedda people living in Sri Lanka as well as some Polynesian cultures are protected from heart disease, despite many cardiac risk factors, by eating coconuts?

2. Is coconut oil good for weight loss?

3. How does coconut oil affect cholesterol levels?

4. What is the best type of coconut oil to buy?

5. Why does Dr. Bunch feel olive oil may be better than coconut oil for the heart?

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Transcription of the Coconut Oil versus Olive Oil Podcast

John: Hello and welcome to the Dr. John Day’s Show. I am so excited today to have as a guest, my partner, Dr. Jared Bunch. Dr. Bunch is a very famous cardiologist at Intermountain Medical Center. Please welcome Dr. Bunch.

Jared: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be here.

John: Now, Dr. Bunch writes an article for the Rhythm of Life at Everyday Health. How many people read your articles last year? Was it like a million people?

Jared: Yes, from what I understand, we had over a million unique people looking into the article during the year. So quite a bit of people and quite a bit of opinion on the different pieces that are posted.

John: Definitely. Now Jared, one of your most recent articles certainly got a lot of attention.  I actually posted a link to this article on my Facebook page and I got a lot of shares and comments.  The article was on coconut oil versus olive oil. I loved this article. Certainly, coconut oil is very popular right now. Olive oil has been popular for quite some time. How did you come up with this concept to write about these oils?

Jared: I’ve been interested in olive oil for a long time as it’s been part of healthy diets, in particular, the Mediterranean diet.  Many of the people in Utah are quite interested in alternative therapies and alternative diets and more and more people are asking about coconut oil. We’re bringing in samples to try, and I had friends trying it and so I decided to research the topic further.

John: Interesting. You know though there hasn’t been a whole lot of data yet on coconut oil.  In contrast, olive oil has been around a long time.  Probably the thing that interests me the most is that there are a number of studies in the medical literature about coconut eating cultures.  These cultures eat coconuts everyday and they don’t seem to get heart disease despite other risk factors. For example, the Polynesians have issues with obesity, but yet some coconut eating Polynesian cultures have low rates of heart disease.  In your article, you talked about the Vedas people of Sri Lanka. Do you want to comment a little bit about that?

Jared: Yes, the Vedas people were one of the most interesting aspects of what I learned about coconut oil.  Another term for them were the “tree people,” and they live in these small communities in Sri Lanka. Their diet – their routine diet – mainly is coconuts, and wild game they can catch. Depending on the season of the year they also eat different fruits and vegetables.  But really from day-to-day, they count on game meat and coconuts. These people just don’t develop heart disease.  Many of them do die from other things, like hunting accidents.

Researchers have gone out and performed the traditional tests we use here in the United States to look for heart disease–looking at them with imaging, on stress test studies, and even with our current technology, they did not find heart disease or evidence of early heart disease in this population. So these were people that really have preserved healthy hearts throughout their life.

John: It’s really fascinating. How can this group of people smoke and do other things, but yet the coconuts seem to be protective. And what about when they move into the cities? Once they move into the cities they may lose some of that social cohesiveness that may have helped to promote health and longevity.

Jared: That’s one of the interesting things when you look at healthy populations.  The first question that a lot of researchers have is, “Well, is it their genetics?”  Perhaps it was their lifestyle and the culture they lived in that was healthy. So these people, many of them had to move in to the city due to various stresses on their habitat, and there they adopt more of the common lifestyle of the Sri Lankans, and approximately 40% begin to smoke. They have jobs that aren’t quite as active, but they do continue to eat coconut, and their incident of heart disease is about one in a hundred thousand, which is far below the risk in our country on orders of magnitude – not even a percent. Even though they’re smoking, they’ve been urbanized, they’ve changed their surroundings, and they start to smoke, and fortunately, they still don’t have a lot of heart disease.

So that does bring up a suggestion of the significance of their genetics, but it also brings up the lifestyle they carry with them, and that’s their tendency to consume a lot of coconuts – about 200 a year.

John: Wow. Now can we replicate that here in the United States if we start using coconut oil?

Jared: That’s a great question. I don’t know if I could eat 200 a year. I could probably drink 200 pina coladas a year [laughter]. I don’t know if I could eat a lot of coconuts, but that’s what you would hope. You’d hope to learn from people that have been able to evade disease. So we have to look at their lifestyle and say, “What can we do?” We probably can’t go and shoot small game, live in a jungle, and be very active in a small community, but we can eat healthier and one of possibilities is enriching our diet with more coconut.

John: Interesting. It seems like – at least on the internet – that coconut oil seems to be good for everything. We’ve talked about heart disease. Another thing is that a lot of people are saying coconut or coconut oil may also help with weight loss. Is there any truth to that?

Jared: Yeah, there is. That is one of the areas of coconut oil that truly has been studied as a means to lose weight. They took 20 obese men and they had them consume about 30 milliliters of coconut oil a week and that’s not a lot. Some people who try it say, well, it changes the flavor in things. It adds a coconut flavor. I can eat it for some things, but I can’t for other things. But 30 millimeters of oil over a week isn’t that much even if you tend to use it just for certain food sources. In obese men, that was the only change they made to their diet. Their weights decreased. That’s fairly significant without changing any other variable, so that gave us some excitement about the potential of weight loss product. It does stem from being rich in medium chain fatty acids. These are healthy for our bodies. They are healthy nutrients, but it does take the body a little bit more energy to break them down into useful products. Things that take the body more energy to break down consume more calories and then you get more weight loss. And so those are exciting aspects of coconut oil.  It also gives promise for future studies as a weight loss dietary aid.

John: Yeah, very fascinating. As a cardiologist, you see patients all the time with high cholesterol. What is the impact of coconut oil on cholesterol levels? Is that something we need to worry about?

Jared: This one’s a good one for me because as a Caucasian white male, I suffer from a slightly high LDL or bad cholesterol and a slightly low HDL, good cholesterol, so it’s a bad mix. And a lot of people with a Northern European ancestry have this trouble, as well.  Not a lot of things raise good cholesterol. Exercise does a little bit. Red wine does a little bit. Coconut oil is one of the things that does as well. It does raise the good cholesterol. Now it does raise bad cholesterol as well. And that’s from polyunsaturated fats.  Polyunsaturated fats are one of the unhealthy by-products of meat consumption. But when we consume them in an oil – in a plant oil – these are what make the plant oil opaque. It’s a different type of polyunsaturated fat . It does raise that protective healthy cholesterol. We often see in clinic people that have slightly high LDLs, but if they have a very high protective good cholesterol, HDL, then they’re relatively protected from heart disease. It is a unique medication for those two aspects of cholesterol management. And clearly if it helps with weight as well, then weight loss can lower LDL on its own. Sometimes when you adopt coconut oil to a healthy lifestyle with other things that lower LDL, you’ll overall come out a winner.

John: We’ve talked about how the Vedda people and some Polynesian cultures are protected from heart disease by eating coconuts.  We have also talked about weight loss from coconuts. Coconut oil tastes great. Also, it seems to be relatively benign on cholesterol. Why is it in your article that you gave the nod to olive oil as the better of the two oils?

Jared: I think it comes from a few things. It sounds almost like I’m a politician [chuckles]–

John: I have to pin you down on this.  I was actually surprised when I read through the comments on this article you wrote for Everyday Health.  I would’ve predicted that the readers would have beaten you up on this point. People were very kind to you with their comments [chuckles].

Jared: Well, I think they’re kind in general to me because they know I’m a novice at this. I think one, they knew I gave coconut a good shake, and I’m still optimistic about it. I think there are three reasons.

One is there’s just so much more data on olive oil. Olive oil is part of some of the most healthy heart friendly diets that we know of. The Mediterranean Diet has numerous studies that show that it lowers cholesterol, heart attack risk, and stroke risk–olive oil is the main product of this healthy diet. So coconut oil is a newcomer. It may reach the same level of success as olive oil, but it’s going to take some time and adaptation across many cultures. The Mediterranean diet not only helps a White race or an Asian race, it has been shown to help races of all kinds throughout the world. So I think that’s where olive oil has a strong lead on coconut oil.

The second is coconut oil contains more calories. So it can in larger quantities lead to some weight gain.

And then I think the third thing that I’ve realized after I wrote this column is people– it’s easier to add olive oil to a lot of food. For example, even today, I was speaking to a friend who is just starting to use coconut oil, and he used it on some eggs, and he served his family the eggs and the eggs had a coconut taste to it. And so he thought, “These eggs taste good, but there is something just different.”

John: Something different about these eggs?

Jared: Yes. So if you add them to brownies or omelets it has a little coconut flair to it. So it takes some time to get used to it and perhaps that’s what our brains told us when we added olive oil instead of canola oil or corn oil. But that, I think, takes a little bit of time to get used to.

But I think that’s a distant third, where the number one is the rich research we have with olive oil.  And in time there will be more and more articles coming out on coconut oil.

John: With all of this, what oil do you use in your home?

Jared: We have lots of olive oil. And partially after writing all of that, we still do use a lot of oil, but we’ve started to substitute coconut oil to see whether it has a role in our family. We’ve used it in things like waffles and pancakes, things that are more sweet, and brownies to substitute for more traditional oils and it works. It’s almost seamless in those, and actually it’s quite good. I haven’t yet tried it on things like eggs and some things that were traditionally consumed in a Mediterranean diet with olive oil, so I need to try and experiment one at a time and see if I like that flavor. But I’ve come to really enjoy olive oil. I use it on most of my vegetables and most of the dishes we cook and so it’ll take some time. We go through a lot of olive oil in our house.

John: Sure. So, at the end of the day it really comes down to a personal decision. Both of these oils appear to be heart healthy. There is a lot more data on olive oil than coconut oil. What type of coconut oil should our listeners buy?

Jared: There’s two main products out there. There’s what we call virgin coconut oil and this is coconut oil that is removed from coconut milk through a process called wet extraction. It’s largely free of refining, and it’s thought to be quite healthy, because it minimizes any loss of the elemental properties of the oil, through refinement and processing. There’s a second one called copra oil, and now this is removed from the coconut meat, the dry meat itself, and it requires some deodorizing, some bleaching, some refining, and it’s thought that in the process of making this ready as a food source, it loses some of the heart-healthy benefits like phenols and antioxidants. And so generally, we’d recommend using the virgin coconut oil products. You’ll see a lot of debate about these on the internet, as to how to classify what’s virgin, extra virgin, etc.  Those standards really aren’t in place, but we want to use the least refined oil as possible, the purest elemental source in order to hopefully take advantage of a lot of the natural nutrients in it without exposing ourselves to some of the things that can occur through processing of the product.

John: Sure. Certainly, if you’re making salad dressings or using it with vegetables dipped in hummus or something like that, olive oil seems to make a lot of sense. But what about for cooking? With the low smoke point of olive oil, is that potentially an issue when cooking?

Jared: Yes. Smoke points can influence what type of things you cook with. Olive oil has a lower smoke point and so it will develop smoke at lower temperatures. Coconut’s a medium range smoke point, so you’re able to cook at a little bit higher temperature. And then your peanut and sesame seed oils have very high smoke points.  For most of the cooking we do at my house we can get away with olive oil because we cook at lower temperatures.  If you are a true chef and you use a variety of ranges and cook hot, coconut oil may have an advantage compared to olive oil.

John: Sure. Maybe as we are starting to come to the end of this podcast, what are some of the most interesting uses of coconut oil that people are promoting on the internet these days?

Jared: The more people that venture into coconut oil, the more applications are promoted on the internet. In fact, there’s a site called the Wellness Mama and this person recently put out 101 unique uses of coconut oil. Everything from helping keep away diaper rash to psoriasis. They promoted it to help with skin– for sunbathing, helping your fingernails grow, there’s lots of things. If you have an interest in the many potential applications, you can go to the Wellness Mama website It’s welnessmama.com and you’ll see a very interesting article of 101 unique ways to use coconut oil including how to make your own soap of coconut oil [chuckles].

John: That one I haven’t yet seen. Now certainly for those who were following the medical news this week, there was an interesting study about researchers in Sri Lanka using coconut oil in rice to turn it into a resistant starch. Apparently, cooking your rice in coconut oil, then cooling it over night, and reheating it the next day dramatically lowers the glycemic index, as well as the calorie load of rice. So yet another interesting use of coconut oil [chuckles].

Jared: Well, this probably does promote the use of rice and coconut oil.  For the people in Sri Lanka, coconut oil on the skin appears to be something that helps reduce inflammation and itching from mosquito bites.

John: Sure. And even for us here in Salt Lake City with our dry climate, coconut oil has got to be better for your skin than some of the chemicals in commercial lotions.

Jared: Now that is an area with a lot of value as far as our experience. It does appear to be a very good lotion for the skin. And if you have an interest in that, people generally like the aroma of coconut, so it naturally blends into some of the various fragrances used in these products.

John: Yeah, definitely. So, if people want to learn more about you, how can they find your Everyday Health articles?

Jared: I would love to have them to read them, and to share them, comment on them and then also contact me if I can do better. If you go to everydayhealth.com and then go to the Healthy Living tab you will see the columns. If you scroll down, you’ll find Rhythm of Life .  I’m the only guy there.

John: Certainly. Do you agree with Dr Bunch’s conclusion that olive oil is the winner? You can leave a comment on his article or on my website below. We’d love to hear your viewpoint. Thank you so much Jared for participating with us on this exciting topic, and I look forward to reading the comments from our listeners. Thank you for tuning in.

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2 Comments
    • Hi Preet,

      Glad to hear your favorite is coconut oil. I suspect that over the next few years we will see a number of studies supporting the heart healthy benefits of coconut oil. Stay tuned.

      Best,

      JOhn