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Coconut Oil for Diabetes? Get Healthy Now

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A holistic health care colleague of mine just sent me this article that talks about how MUFAs (monounsaturated fatty acids/MCTs (medium chain triglycerides)) can help in type 2 diabetes (among other things).1  The article is in the reference list below if you want to read the entire thing.  It’s a good study and I like that it’s done with coconut oil instead of animal fats.  But how should we be thinking about studies like this?

Let me start off by saying that I am a nerd who really loves research (and then making practical applications of it). So, I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

If you have followed me for long, you’re probably already confused, as you know that I don’t promote using oils at all in the diet… Yes, that’s right, not even our precious olive or coconut oils.  For more on that, you can read a previous post here on why I avoid using oils.  I haven’t changed my position on that.  Keep reading…

On studies like this I would be concerned about the sources of MUFA as well as the dosages, and most importantly the effects on other parts of the body in the long-term.  Of course, I understand that no study is perfect and it’s nearly impossible to account for every dynamic and variable…  Because this is not a specific study but rather a meta-analysis, I’m not clear on how long these trials were (for each that was included).  So, for example, coconut oil is great for helping with type 2 diabetes and a few other things initially, but what is the impact (specifically on the liver and gallbladder) over the long-term?  I tend to talk about the liver and gallbladder together since they work so closely.  But the liver is especially sensitive to fat and the excessive fats, specifically processed fats (oils)2 and animal fats3 which further this burden and are associated with many liver conditions.

Oils, although commonly cited as good sources of MCT, bring with them another set of challenges (similar to the way that protein can be found in meat but also brings saturated fat, cholesterol and excessive bacteria into the body).

Both personally and with naturopathic medicine clients, I don’t recommend using oils for a few reasons (see below).  Number 4 is the most important.  I know that this is new for most people so hear me out  I totally did NOT agree when I first started learning about this… But after about 6 months of research, the evidence became unavoidable.

  1. Quality of the oils. Yes, of course, as is the case with anything, some brands and ways of processing are better than others.  However, in general, oils are sensitive to many factors that impact their freshness such as temperature, light, metals and exposure to oxygen.  It’s both the processing as well as the storage of the oils that contribute to this.4  These oxidative conditions produce aldehydes, ketones, epoxides and other chemicals that are considered carcinogenic.5  Unfortunately, these rules apply to all oils, not just certain oils.  Even when virgin olive oil was compared with refined olive oil, quality was still compromised.6  I don’t believe there’s a consistently accurate and practical way to ensure you’re getting good quality oil when you’re in the grocery or health food store.
  2. Quantity of the oils. Perhaps if you eat a super clean, whole food, plant-based diet void of animal products and processed foods, you may be able to get away with small amounts of oil on rare occasion.  (By that I would mean maybe a teaspoon every couple of weeks).  However, for most people who are consuming oil multiple times per day every day, they are just getting way too much for the body to sustain.  A low fat diet is associated with helping both type 1 and type 2 diabetes as well, so perhaps quantity would be important to look further into.3  It’s been my experience that most people’s liver and gallbladders are so overburdened that oils become another hit.  Admittedly, this is my personal deduction from my years of seeing clients in clinical practice.  Of course, there are many factors or reasons that play a role (besides oil).  That said, again, if you don’t have any signs of liver/gallbladder issues, perhaps you could handle more oil… But I haven’t found that person yet.  For what it’s worth, my standard for someone who has liver/gallbladder issues is higher than just a disease diagnosis.  I am seeing younger people (those in their 20s and 30s) who have subclinical signs of these issues.  This is likely one of many reasons that so many people are having their gallbladders removed as well.7
  3. Oils are not whole food and whole foods are better for disease prevention and the promotion of health.8  You will never see oils in nature outside of their whole food substance.  One of the benefits of eating whole foods is that in nature, food is balanced with its synergistic cofactors and other nutrients that are needed for it to be properly used by the body.  Oils are stripped of fiber and other key nutrients that they were designed to be consumed with.  This is why some people taking certain supplements have issues (for example, many iron supplements cause constipation but eating an iron-rich plant like kale typically does not) and also the reason that whole food supplements (assuming good quality) are often safer and more effective than isolated ingredients.
  4. The biggest reason is their overall impact on health, although most of the research has been on cardiovascular issues.9  Dr. Caldwell Esselstyn and Dr. Dean Ornish, both cardiologists, have done a lot of work in this area. The issues are with fats in general to some degree, but specifically oils.  Oils appear to cause challenges for proper endothelial function of the arteries, similar to the damage done by animal fat.2  As discussed above, since they’re no longer in their whole food form, oils are a concentrated fat.  This is relatively new research so much more needs to be done.

My position is not against MUFA or to invalidate the study (it is valid for sure), but rather to ask: In the long-term (this is key), is oil the BEST source or would perhaps the whole food be superior?  So, for example, is fresh coconut meat or a whole olive better than their extracted and processed oils?  We know that whole foods are superior due to the fact that they are consumed with fiber and other synergistic cofactors that they were intended to be eaten with, which improves over all bioavailability.

It would be interesting for someone to do more research in regard to MCT oils being used with people who are on a vegan, whole food, or otherwise low-fat diet.

This is more of a personal philosophy, but another general conclusion for me both personally and professionally is that my goal is always OPTIMAL health for myself, my family and my clients (not just alleviating pain or symptoms).  So, in this case, instead of asking questions like “What’s wrong with oil?” (which is a totally fair question), I’m more concerned with questions like, “What are the BEST sources and quantities of healthy fat?”  Framed in that light, algae, walnuts, chia seeds, flax seeds and avocados are what I personally use/recommend.  These provide an excellent source of fat without the side effects of processed oils or animal fats.

The questions that I always have in regard to studies like this are:

1.  Do the benefits of one area (or several) outweigh the bigger picture?

2.  Are there other factors that are possibly causing the benefits? (For example, if you look at the keto diet just in terms of weight loss, it’s great!  But much of the benefit is just because, by its very nature, it eliminates processed foods).

3. Is it the BEST way to reach OPTIMAL wellness?  In this case, I’d rather eat a small portion of walnuts, olives or flax seeds (all whole foods) which would give the benefit with a far less side effect.

I hope this helps you to at least frame your thoughts and think through when you hear about “the latest nutrition study” that everyone is talking about.  One study, although valid, needs to be substantiated by other studies and by longer-term research.  Something that works great for 4 weeks might be dangerous after 4 years , for example  keto propaganda .

It is my goal to always look out for you.  More importantly, I want to give you the tools to look out for yourself and your friends and family.  Discerning our way through studies like this is a great and fun way to do that.

If you need help getting healthy now, feel free to reach out.  It is my honor to see clients from all over the country as well as in our local area.  Your health is your greatest earthly possession.  Take good care of it. And, if you’re at a loss, let us help!

Resource List:

1. Qian F, Korat AA, Malik V, Hu FB. Metabolic effects of monounsaturated fatty acid-enriched diets compared with carbohydrate or polyunsaturated fatty acid-enriched diets in patients with type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Diabetes Care. 2016. doi:10.2337/dc16-0513

2. Gregor M. Olive Oil & Artery Function. NutritionFacts.org. https://nutritionfacts.org/video/olive-oil-and-artery-function/. Accessed May 30, 2020.

3. McMacken M, Shah S. A plant-based diet for the prevention and treatment of type 2 diabetes. J Geriatr Cardiol. 2017. doi:10.11909/j.issn.1671-5411.2017.05.009

4. Choe E, Min DB. Mechanisms and factors for edible oil oxidation. Compr Rev Food Sci Food Saf. 2006. doi:10.1111/j.1541-4337.2006.00009.x

5. Chang LW, Lo WS, Lin P. Trans, Trans-2, 4-decadienal, a product found in cooking oil fumes, induces cell proliferation and cytokine production due to reactive oxygen species in human bronchial epithelial cells. Toxicol Sci. 2005. doi:10.1093/toxsci/kfi258

6. Gharby S, Harhar H, Matthäus B, Bouzoubaa Z, Charrouf Z. The chemical parameters and oxidative resistance to heat treatment of refined and extra virgin Moroccan Picholine olive oil. J Taibah Univ Sci. 2016. doi:10.1016/j.jtusci.2015.05.004

7. Yago MD, González V, Serrano P, et al. Effect of the type of dietary fat on biliary lipid composition and bile lithogenicity in humans with cholesterol gallstone disease. Nutrition. 2005. doi:10.1016/j.nut.2004.06.028

8. Hamblin J. Science {Compared} {Every} {Diet}, and the {Winner} {Is} {Real} {Food}. Atl. 2014.

9. Esselstyn C. Is Oil Healthy? Int J Dis Reversal Prev. 2019;1(2). https://ijdrp.org/index.php/ijdrp/article/view/35.

Nothing said or implied in this post is intended to treat, cure, diagnose or prevent any disease.  It does not take the place of a health care practitioner.  It is for educational purposes only.
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