Coconut oil just got a caustic write-up online by the American Heart Association. Hopefully their “heart” was in the right place, but the study seems overarching and presumptuous because it presumes all saturated fat to be the same and that it alone, is the root cause of most heart disease.
They recommend we stick with polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats. These include the Omega Fatty Acids as well as many nut based oils like cashew, sunflower, olive and avocado. These fats have been found by the AMA to decrease “bad cholesterol” and increase “good cholesterol.”
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a lipid (fat) molecule synthesized naturally in the body. It is important for maintaining cellular structure (since animal cells do not have cell walls like plants), fluidity and adaptability in the body. It is the precursor for bile, adrenocortical steroid hormones (cortisol and androgen) and sex hormones (estrogen, progesterone, and testosterone), as well as vitamin D.
Cholesterol is reused in the body and in its final incarnation before moving back into the bloodstream, the liver converts it into bile. Physiologically, cholesterol ingested can be difficult to absorb.
Since all animals organically make cholesterol, it can make sense why eating them and their byproducts can increase our own cholesterol levels dramatically. This is part of the argument behind vegetarianism as a lifestyle.
Plants do not make fatty acids the way animals do. Plants make what is called phytosterols which compete with cholesterol in function but are not triglycerides. Why is this important?
The Real Reason Cholesterol Becomes A Problem
Cholesterol has been give a bad rap in Western Medicine in the last 20 years. This is because heart disease has been on the rise and cholesterol in high levels can lead to blocked arteries, heart disease and liver issues. We can all understand why – now seeing how cholesterol interacts with both the heart, the bloodstream and liver.
What this turned into however, was a reactionary overhaul of the fat intake in the United States where people across the board denied fats from their diet all together. Still craving the sweetness and heaviness fat provided, they turned toward artificial sweeteners, and fat free foods with 0 calories that tasted to the tongue like they were true fat.
Cut to the present. Many who consumed high quantities of sugar are ending up with digestive disturbances1, skin issues2, and strange cancers.3 It was also found that an overconsumption of meat was linked to cancer.4,5 There are many reasons high levels of meat consumption can create general malfunction of the body system. Hormones in meat have been linked to cancer.6 The high fat content present can increase the risk of hormone related cancers like breast, ovarian, and prostate.6 Another trigger is the cholesterol present in red meat itself. As there is more saturated fat in red meat than fish or chicken for example, there is a higher likelihood the cholesterol will end up in the blood, circulating and potentially creating blockage.
Ayurvedically, we need to eat all six tastes.7 The six tastes are composed of different combinations of the five elements. Since we are all constitutionally made of some proportion of the five elements, to remain healthy and embodied, we will need all six tastes in our diet to ensure the nourishment of all our tissues. Fats fall under the category of Sweet taste. This taste is made of Earth and Water. It is building, nourishing, softening, smoothing. It has the ability to support, to sustain, to hold, to protect. In its purest form it is Ojas which is defined as overall Immunity.
Overconsumption + Underconsumption Of Fat
Those who do not consume fats therefore are denying their body the ability to produce the liquid, oleated portion of their body. This includes synovial fluid, fatty tissue, brain tissue, myelin sheath (protecting the nervous system), saliva, the water portion of the skin, blood plasma, reproductive fluids, the moisture of the eye, mucous and the mucosal lining of all tissue including that which protects the stomach from the peptic acid that is held there (to name a few).
Too much of any one thing will of course lead to disorders – And, the Western paradigm is consumptive by nature. When we consume anything (through any of our five senses) in too high quantities, we will suffer the consequences of this. Too much fat, especially saturated fat, as the AMA suggests, leads to higher levels of liquid/mucosal substance in the body. This can certainly lead to blockage and hypertension and other disorders of heaviness and stress.
The first place this shows up however, is in the digestive system. When we eat heavy foods of the Sweet, Sour, and Salty tastes especially, the gastrointestinal system needs time to digest them as their damp and heavy qualities can challenge the digestive fire of the body – known as Jataragni. This is the agni, or Fire in the stomach that breaks down food into simpler components to be further digested by the liver. The fire in the liver is called bhutagni. Bhutagni is responsible for further assimilation of that which the stomach broke down so that it can be absorbed and used to rebuild new tissues.
If we consume too much dense substance and we put out the fire in the stomach, food sits there, undigested, yet desperate to absorb. Think about what happens when you forget to empty your trash for three weeks. The once perfectly good food remains, sits and rots. This is what happens to food the body is unable to process. It turns to what is called ama.
This is the same ama that clogs the arteries and causes heaviness in the stomach post eating. The reason ama spreads is due to diffusion. According to Ayurveda, all substance travel from areas of high concentration to low. So, when the digestive tract has high levels of ama, if it is not managed quickly (within 24 hours) it will begin to diffuse through the other tissues – the next being the lymph, followed by the blood.
Please note, however, that this is due to the consumption of any substance that is too heavy or difficult to digest. Difficult to digest can be processed foods, excessively fried foods, and fake sweeteners. This is the American diet. It is not just the oil that is the problem, it is the entire diet.
Additionally, for those who forego fat all together, the body becomes dry, brittle, rough, light, and unstable. The digestive fire is blown out by Air and Space essentially. Then, any substance that enters the body causes disturbance and poor assimilation. Gas forms, bloating, constipation, anemia, fatigue, listlessness persists – ama remains – and still spreads.
The Negative Effects Of A Sedentary Lifestyle
One method to remove ama from the digestive tract is with exercise. However, with the high capacity for excessive sedentary living that Westerners are prone to now, we eat food we do not know and then we sit.
Any sedentary lifestyle will lead to accumulation of Earth and Water (Kapha) and likely will dampen digestion. The lymphatic tissue will become heavier, the blood will become thicker, there will be more mucous, more phlegm, more heaviness and swelling. The heart will be impacted because the body is heavy.
The Western paradigm is nearly always 100% this or 100% that. It is very black and white. Grey is confusing and thus not allowed. However, life is multi-faceted. Ayurveda discusses this time and again. It is why one diet is good for one person and is not supportive to the next. We are all mixtures of so many things. Our diets must reflect this!
Is Coconut Oil Healthy Or Not?
The Benefits Of Coconut Oil
To lump coconut oil in with red meat and animal by-products, even if they are technically made of the same “kind” of fat is a little ludicrous. According to Dr. John Douilliard, Kerala is the supposed birthplace of the Coconut.8 The Coconut is considered to be one of the most balanced and robust foods. It provides a clean source of energy. Allowing the body to burn fat instead of sugar, it boosts endurance and increases immunity as it is a natural anti-bacterial. It improves digestion and absorption, while helping to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. It improves circulation, and helps balance the “good” and “bad” cholesterol in the body. It is an antioxidant, balances thyroid, and supports healthy brain function.
Coconut oil is basically the Ojas – or the Immunity – of the Coconut. It is the interior of the seed that becomes the coconut tree. Until it fell, its home was on its mother, the Coconut tree. It was permitted to sway in the sun, fed by the soil, the rain, the ocean spray. Until the seed falls, it has a home.
Coconut Oil vs. Animal Fat
Compare this to animal fat. Grown on a farm, with other animals who currently live unnaturally sedentary lives….Even just imagining a farmed cow next to the image of a coconut tree provides a very different emotional response.
The Ojas of a cow can be in its milk, but this is only if the cow herself, is healthy with healthy immunity. If her diet and exercise regime is similar to the western American one, she too likely has issues with a fatty heart, heaviness, and lethargy. If we consume what she makes, we will become like her. Ayurveda promises this when it states that : like increases like.9
Perhaps this would all be different if we hunted for our food and created a relationship with that which we hunted. (Additionally, hunting is exercise if we were to do so with a simple gun or bows and arrows.) But mostly, if we as modern people were able to have an energetic exchange with that which we took in (whether animal product or not), our levels of overuse and consumption would be lower. Then likely, the complaints of the AMA would be assuaged.
To criticize coconut oil as a bad fat which should be avoided bar none is simplistic. This is especially true when so many other factors contribute to an unhealthy physical heart, not to mention the effects of an emotionally stagnant heart.
The Importance Of Balance In Consumption
In my opinion, the greatest cause of bad cholesterol, high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and on and on is our over consumptive nature and our lack of energetic balance with the world in which we live. To create fear around coconut oil, but not around the animal industrial complex seems highly suspicious.
Life is about balance. What we take in we become. We express what we take in. If we take in too much of anything, eventually our ability to express will clog and thus diminish. It doesn’t really matter what that substance is at a certain level.
There is only one rule in Ayurveda: Remember your innate nature as Spirit. Balance is a reflection of this and a reminder that all beings have Spirit – from cows to coconuts. Balance comes from relationship. We must have a harmonious relationship with that which we consume and we must want to serve that which we will eventually consume. This is how we maintain an appropriate balance of the elements – space and density – for overall health.
1 Shell, Ellen Ruppel. “Artificial Sweeteners May Change Our Gut Bacteria in Dangerous Ways.” Scientific American. Nature America, Inc., n.d. Web. 28 July 2017.
2 Katta, Rajani, and Samir P. Desai. “Diet and Dermatology: The Role of Dietary Intervention in Skin Disease.” The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. Matrix Medical Communications, July 2014. Web. 28 July 2017.
3 Larsson, Susanna C., and Leif Bergkvist. “Susanna C Larsson.” The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. American Society for Nutrition, 01 Nov. 2006. Web. 28 July 2017.
4 Larsson, Susanna C., Nicola Orsini, and Alicja Wolk. “Processed Meat Consumption and Stomach Cancer Risk: A Meta-Analysis | JNCI: Journal of the National Cancer Institute | Oxford Academic.” OUP Academic. Oxford University Press, 02 Aug. 2006. Web. 28 July 2017.
5 Santarelli, Raphaëlle L., Fabrice Pierre, and Denis E. Corpet. “Processed Meat and Colorectal Cancer: A Review of Epidemiologic and Experimental Evidence.” Nutrition and Cancer. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2008. Web. 28 July 2017.
6 Anonymous. “Meat Consumption and Cancer Risk.” The Physicians Committee. The Physicians Committee, 02 Nov. 2015. Web. 28 July 2017.
7 Ashtanga Hridayam, Chapter 13.5 and 14
8 Douillard, Dr. John. “Coconut Oil – Health Benefits, Side Effects, Uses.” Dr. Douillard’s LifeSpa. Dr. Douillard’s LifeSpa, n.d. Web. 28 July 2017.
9 Ashtanga Hrdayam 13.5