Saturated fats, coconut oil and cardiovascular disease

Saturated fats, coconut oil and cardiovascular disease

The American Heart Association (AHA) recently published a review of current knowledge on the association between dietary fats and cardiovascular disease. By taking into consideration the entirety of the available scientific evidence, the committee concluded that a lower intake in saturated fat and replacing it with unsaturated fat represents the optimal combination to reduce the incidence of heart disease in the population, especially if it is accompanied by a transition toward an overall healthy diet, such as the Mediterranean diet.

The positive impact of substituting saturated fat with unsaturated fat can mainly by explained by the opposite effects of these two types of fat on the LDL cholesterol level, a well-established risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Whereas saturated fat is associated with an increase of this cholesterol, and thus an increase in the risk of cardiovascular events, unsaturated fat leads to a decrease in LDL cholesterol levels in the blood and is associated with a significant decrease in mortality.  Since animal-based protein sources (meat, dairy products, eggs) are the main sources of saturated fat in diets, whereas plant-based fats are mainly unsaturated, the mere act of reducing consumption of animal products while simultaneously increasing the consumption of plant-based foods is a very easy way to improve the quality of dietary fats, and thus reduce the risk of heart disease. In fact, it is interesting to note that several regions of the world known for their low incidence of cardiovascular disease (Okinawa, Japan; Ikaria, Greece; Sardinia; and the Tsimané people of the Amazon) all share one commonality: a diet high in plant-based foods with a low intake of animal protein and saturated fat.

Plant-based saturated fat
Whereas almost all plant-based fats mainly contain unsaturated fat, there is nevertheless one notable exception: tropical palm and coconut oils (see the Table). Indeed, palm oil (extracted from the fruit pulp) and palm kernel oil (derived from the kernels) contain very high levels of saturated fat (50% for palm oil and 82% for palm kernel oil), which gives them a semi-solid texture at room temperature. This property is used in the food industry to improve the texture of cookies, cakes and other products, and the high level of saturated fat also ensures that these oils are much more resistant to oxidation and considerably improves the shelf life of these foods. However, like all sources of saturated fat, these oils increase blood cholesterol levels and thus are not recommended for cardiovascular health. Not to mention the devastating environmental impact of the intensive cultivation of oil palm, in particular in Indonesia: almost two million hectares of tropical forest are destroyed every year for this crop, a deforestation that has disastrous environmental consequences and threatens animals such as tigers and orangutans from Sumatra and Borneo with extinction.

Table.  Proportion of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat in different animal and plant-based fats.

Source of fatSaturated fat
(g/100g)
Monounsaturated fat
(g/100g)
Polyunsaturated fat
(g/100g)
Butter63264
Canola oil76328
Coconut oil8262
Corn oil132855
Olive oil147310
Palm oil49379
Palm kernel oil82112
Lard394511
Soybean oil162358
Sunflower oil10844

Coconut oil: saturated fat with positive effects?
Coconut oil is another plant-based source that contains a very high proportion of saturated fat (82%), but that, curiously, has gained a good reputation over the years. In fact, a recent survey reported that 72% of Americans consider coconut oil a “healthy” food! Two main characteristics of coconut oil, frequently mentioned in mainstream press, explain this popularity:

1) Population studies. Epidemiological studies conducted among populations that consume large quantities of coconut, such as the inhabitants of Polynesian islands like Tokelau or those of the Melanesian island Kitava, revealed a low incidence of heart disease, despite a high intake of saturated fat from this fruit. It should be noted, however, that it is the coconut meat, very high in fibre, that is consumed by these populations, so the lack of effect on cardiovascular disease cannot be extrapolated to that associated with adding purified coconut oil to Western diets, which contain a large proportion of processed foods.

2) Impact on cholesterol. The saturated fat in coconut oil has shorter chains than that found in palm oil or in butter, and, in theory, has less harmful effects on cholesterol levels. About half of saturated fat contained in coconut oil is in the form of lauric acid (12 carbon atoms), and studies show that the effect of this fatty acid on LDL cholesterol is half that of palmitic acid (16 carbon atoms). In practice, however, a systematic review of the studies conducted to date indicates that coconut oil increases LDL cholesterol levels in a similar way to other sources of saturated fat (butter, palm oil) and in a more significant way than unsaturated fat, such as olive oil for example.

Overall, these observations suggest that coconut oil is a source of saturated fat like any other, and that it should be used sparingly to prevent an increase in the risk of heart disease. For everyday cooking, virgin olive oil is a much better choice because of its very well documented positive effects on cardiovascular health. Among other plant-based oils, the use of canola oil is recommended, as it contains the highest proportion of omega-3 polyunsaturated fats, known for their anti-inflammatory effects.

Type 2 diabetes can be cured

Type 2 diabetes can be cured

Type 2 diabetes is without question one of the most serious consequences of being overweight. With the steady increase in obesity worldwide, the International Diabetes Federation estimates that 415 million adults have diabetes, and that 318 million are “pre-diabetic,” i.e., have chronic glucose intolerance, which puts them at high risk of eventually developing the disease. This is a major concern, as diabetes causes premature aging of the blood vessels and significantly increases the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Type 2 diabetes is generally considered to be a chronic, irreversible and incurable disease, for which the only therapeutic option is to limit the damage caused by hyperglycemia. In this testimonial, Normand Mousseau, Professor of Physics at Université de Montréal, demonstrates that this is not the case, and that drastic lifestyle changes leading to significant weight loss may be sufficient to restore blood glucose levels and to completely eliminate diabetes without medical or pharmacological intervention. This is a spectacular example of the immense potential of lifestyle to not only prevent but also cure certain diseases resulting from being overweight. 

I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes four years ago, in May 2013. Seeking treatment for an infection that would not heal, I consulted a doctor. I was 46, I didn’t have a family physician and hadn’t had a medical examination in a long time. Indeed, despite being very overweight – at the time, I weighed 230 pounds (104 kg) at 5’11” (180 cm) – I thought I was in good health.

A few days after the blood test recommended by my doctor, he gave me the bad news: my fasting blood sugar exceeded 14 mmol/l, double the threshold for diabetes. When I asked him what I could do to heal, he replied that type 2 diabetes is a chronic and degenerative disease. All I could do was slow its progression and limit its effects by combining medication with weight loss, better nutrition, and a little physical exercise.

The news hit me hard: type 2 diabetes is a terrible and insidious disease that affects quality of life, and even causes death.

As soon as I was diagnosed, I decided to change my lifestyle. While taking 500 then 850 mg of metformin twice a day, I cut sugar, added a lot of vegetables to my diet, and started running. I also learned to use a blood glucose meter to monitor the daily fluctuations in my blood sugar, in constant fear that it might exceed acceptable thresholds.

As a result of these lifestyle changes, I quite rapidly lost about 30 pounds. By the end of 2013, I was running 5 to 7 km two or three times a week and weighed around 195 pounds. My diabetes was still there, however, as was the certainty that the disease would progress and that all of my efforts would be in vain.

Finally, almost a year after my diagnosis, in April 2014, I decided to redouble my efforts and checked for myself whether type 2 diabetes was really a chronic disease. After a few days of research in medical journals and on the Internet, among the false promises and half-truths, I found news that seemed credible and confirmed that yes, type 2 diabetes can be cured!

The treatment proposed by Professor Roy Taylor of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom is alarmingly simple: you have to lose weight, usually a lot, and probably quickly.

Taylor’s approach is based on three sets of results, some of which date back more than 50 years:

  • First, it has been known since the mid-1970s that a large percentage of people with type 2 diabetes who undergo bariatric surgery to reduce stomach size and facilitate weight loss recover from diabetes, so the disease is not irreversible;
  • Second, it has been known for about 20 years that the beta cells of the pancreas, which are responsible for the production of insulin, are very sensitive to the presence of fat molecules;
  • Finally, thanks to magnetic imaging, it has been observed that, even in a group of people with a healthy weight, some individuals with diabetes show an above-average presence of fat in their internal organs.

Based on this work, Taylor concluded that the presence of fat in internal organs is toxic to the pancreas, and that reducing it can allow the organ to function normally again. He then developed an approach that he tested on 13 diabetic and overweight individuals: for two months, they adopted a very low-calorie diet of 600 to 700 calories a day. Despite the small study size, the results, published in 2011, are staggering: the majority of participants reached blood glucose levels below the diabetes threshold and maintained normal blood glucose levels for three months after the end of the study. In a journal article published shortly afterwards, Taylor stated that his approach also worked for people on insulin.

I was astounded when I read this research. Could the solution be that simple?

Since I had little to lose by testing the approach, except for a little weight, I started on a very low-calorie diet, adopting an alternating two-phase approach:

  • a 600-calorie diet for 8 to 10 days, eating a minimum of 200 g of vegetables, and drinking 2 litres of water a day
  • three weeks on a more reasonable 1,500-calorie diet.

By the end of my third 600-calorie round in August 2014, I weighed 165 pounds, had lost about 30 pounds, and was completely cured, with fasting blood glucose levels of about 5.8 mmol/l, without any medication. One year later, in October 2015, my weight had stabilized around 170 pounds, my HbA1c was 5.1%, and my blood sugar was 5.7 mmol/l.

Almost three years after the end of my treatment, I am eating normally while monitoring my weight, I run 8 to 10 km 3 times a week, and I maintain my fasting blood sugar levels around 5.7 mmol/l. Of course, I am still at risk of developing type 2 diabetes – my genetic predisposition hasn’t disappeared! – and if I regain the weight, it is very likely that after some time my pancreas will start to fail again. However, I am no longer diabetic, and that is a great relief.

Since the publication of my book last year, I’ve received many testimonials from people of all ages reporting their success in beating their type 2 diabetes by following this diet. Some of them shared that their doctors were simply amazed. All of them told me that their lives had been changed as a result.

Despite its simplicity, this treatment isn’t easy: losing weight demands significant effort; keeping it off requires iron will and a profound lifestyle change. However, it is worth the effort, as type 2 diabetes is a devastating disease that greatly reduces our quality of life. So, there is no reason not to start today!

Normand Mousseau
Professor of Physics, Université de Montréal

Author of the book “Comment se débarrasser du diabète de type 2 sans chirurgie ni médicament”, Éditions du Boréal (2016). [available in French only]

References:
Lim, E. L., K. G. Hollingsworth, B. S. Aribisala, M. J. Chen, J. C. Mathers and R. Taylor (2011). “Reversal of type 2 diabetes: normalisation of beta cell function in association with decreased pancreas and liver triacylglycerol.” Diabetologia 54(10): 2506-2514.

Taylor, R. (2013). “Banting Memorial lecture 2012: reversing the twin cycles of type 2 diabetes.” Diabet Med 30(3): 267-275.

Tham, C. J., N. Howes and C. W. le Roux (2014). “The role of bariatric surgery in the treatment of diabetes.” Therapeutic Advances in Chronic Disease T5: 149-157.