Heart Smart Living
Heart Smart Living

Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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The Truth about Tropical Oils and Heart Health

Jar of coconut oil.Body lotions oozing with coconut and palm oil make our skin feel silky smooth, but what do they do for the heart? It’s an important question. Although most saturated fat comes from animal fat, tropical oils are the most important plant-based source of this artery-clogging fat.

These oils have been used for centuries by the people of Malaysia and other eastern countries, but, in the past decade, U.S. consumption of tropical oils has skyrocketed. The most important reason for this growth is the increasing awareness of the harm done by trans fats. Trans fats, which usually start as perfectly innocent polyunsaturated fats, are chemically modified to make them more stable. Hence, we get vegetable shortening and hard margarine, both of which were freely used in snack foods and other processed foods for years.  Now that we know that trans fats are even more harmful than saturated fats, manufacturers have scaled back on their use, and turned to tropical oils instead.

Proponents of tropical oils like to argue that their fats, while saturated, are healthier than animal fats. Of course, healthier is a relative term. While animal fats have a more detrimental effect on cholesterol, palm and coconut oil will also raise blood lipid levels significantly. Studies of tropical oils have found that shortly after eating a meal loaded with these fats, the blood vessels react in exactly the same way as they do with animal fat. The arteries become stiffer and tighter, and the risk of blood clots rises.

Perhaps the most disturbing issue related to the use of palm oil is the fact that thousands of square miles of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforest is being decimated in order to build industrial palm oil plantations. In the process, vulnerable wildlife and animals including elephants, orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and other endangered species are threatened with the loss of their natural environment and migratory routes.

Much of the tropical oil produced today is destined for snack foods.  You can do your heart good and help protect the planet by cutting back on processed foods, replacing packaged products with fresh, sustainable produce and whole grains, and by using olive oil or canola oil when a little fat is needed.

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Tags: Cholesterol and Lipids , Diet and Heart Health

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About the Author


Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.