The Truth about Coconut Oil

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If there is one food product that has exploded onto the health food scene over the last 12 months, it’s coconut oil. Added to chocolate bars, pour it on your cereal, eat it with a spoon, or pour it on your salads. I’ve seen claims by health food companies that it will burn fat and help you to drop weight fast, reduce inflammation, make you happier, and cure arthritis.

A big part of the coconut oil explosion can be put down to the point in time when super gorgeous, super healthy supermodel (I won’t mention names)announced that she had been eating it since she was a teenager, and has teaspoons of it every day to keep her healthy. Now, who wouldn’t have a desire to look like a supermodel, and if it gives us extra nutrition benefits such as clear skin, lower our risk of heart disease and can help to increase our metabolism and lose weight as the supermodel and health food companies say, then we should all be eating it correct?

Well, there are a few facts to the story that need to be made clear, so let’s go through them.

I must say, the point of this article is not to demonise coconut oil, instead the article is to provide the complete story of coconut oil to enable you to make an educated decision.

– COMPOSITION –

You probably know that there are two types of fats – saturated  and unsaturated. Saturated fats are found in animal products, with evidence to show that a diet high in saturated fats may lead to chronic disease and obesity (please see foot note about this statement). On the other hand, unsaturated fats can protect us from chronic diseases such as heart disease, arthritis, and dementia. They can be found in fish, nuts, olive and other plant-based oils.

Take a look at the graph below. It shows you that coconut oil is made up of a minimum of 92 and up to 96% saturated fat, sitting as the highest in saturated fat content of all oils. Meat contains approximately 46% saturated fat.

ComparisonDietaryFatsForDifferentOilSources

Some exciting information emerged that the saturated fat (bad) in coconut oil is in fact a form of GOOD saturated fat called Medium Chain Tryglycerides (let’s call them MCT’s) and this is in fact true. MCT’s are fat molecules joined together in a chain, shorter in length than the other saturated fat called Long Chain Triglycerides (LCT’s) and as such, are more readily absorbed by our body, easier to break down, and more quickly used for energy. Wow! Coconut oil advocates jumped on this, claiming that this makes coconut oil a wonderfood. But there is much more to the story.

Let’s go over it:

  • So the saturated fat content of coconut Oil is approx maximum 96%
  • The truth is, that not all this saturated fat is good.
  • It is only approximately 50% that is the good MCT’s .
  • Remember the total saturated fat content of coconut oil is 96% right?
  • So you are probably wondering what the other 46% of the saturated fat in coconut oil is made up of?

Unfortunately it is the Long Chain which are not good for our health, and this is what the producers of coconut oil don’t tell us.

46% of coconut oil is the unhealthy saturated fat in the form of LCT’s.

There is not a lot of evidence to show that either the MCT’s in coconut oil can prevent heart disease or are in fact good for us. Many of the studies are on rats, in which case the results of the studies are not applicable to how the oil affects humans. There was an early study that proved weight loss in women who were taking coconut oil, though this study was performed on a very small number of overweight South American women who were from extremely poor communities and who normally ate take out rather than doing their own cooking. During the trial, they were made to exercise 5 days per week and reduce their calories significantly. The author even mentions the results of the study are not able to be applied to the general public, nor is it known if coconut was the cause of the weight loss. Unfortunately though, this study is often used as evidence to support coconut oil as a miracle ingredient for weight loss.

There is however, a large amount of strong evidence on humans to show that a diet containing monounsaturated oils found in olive oil and polyunsaturated oils from oily fish, are protective against heart disease and can also assist our brain function and produce healthy skin and nails. Fish oil is also proven effective in reducing pain from athritis and inflammation.

Take another look at the graph, and you will see that coconut oil provides extremely little of these heart healthy mono and polyunsaturated oils. On the other hand oils such as rice bran, olive, and sunflower oil contain high amounts of these and much lower levels of saturated fats compared to coconut oil.

-EXCESS FAT LEADS TO WEIGHT GAIN-

Regardless of your current views on the saturated fat debate, there is no escaping the simple fact that coconut oil is still a fat. Fat contain the most kilojoules of all macronutrients, more than carbohydrates and proteins.  If you eat above what your body requires in kilojoules, this will be stored as fat. So if the addition of coconut oil (remember high in kilojoules) will put you above your kilojoule requirements, this will lead to weight gain and chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes and heart disease negating any of so called benefits of coconut oil anyway!

The most important thing – coconut oil does NOT contain less kilojoules or total fat than any other fat or oil out there.

Coconut oil advocates also claim that it holds anti-microbial, anti-bacterial and anti-inflammatory powers, but so does garlic, onion, honey and ginger. There are other foods of which can offer these benefits without the caloric intake.

– LOW SMOKE POINT –

Coconut oil has been cited as being a healthy oil to cook with at high temperatures due to the high smoke point of the oil. The smoke point refers to the temperature the oil can reach before damaging the chemical structure. Heating the oil above this temperature may have health implications such as increased risk of some cancers.

It is only the refined coconut oil with added stabilisers (the least popular product on the market) which has a high smoke point. The popular virgin cold pressed coconut oil in fact has a low smoke point when compared with many other oils (even lower than virgin olive oil) and shouldn’t be heated to high temperatures. If wanting to choose an oil with a high smoke point, look for rice bran, macadamia or grapeseed oil.

Coconut oil does have its place.

  • A well balanced diet high in fruit and vegetables, low in processed and foods can afford to have the addition of coconut oil in moderation.
  • It is also a suitable option for vegetarians and vegans as their diet is already lower in saturated fat.
  • A small amount in cakes and treats is fine to add a delicious coconut flavour and works well for people who are allergic or intolerant to dairy.
  • I use coconut oil each day on my wiry, frizzy hair and we both use it as a skin moisturiser religiously as it has no hidden nasties compared with other skin creams.
  • Try coconut water which contains no fat, is a delicious drink, and can be added to smoothies and curries.
  • Coconut flesh contains fibre and other nutrients and is lower in fat and kilojoules compared to the oil.
  • Add chia seeds to smoothies for a dose of omega oils and fibre.

The Verdict

Coconut oil isn’t a cure-all, much more research is needed.

Moderation is the key, and the main reason for publishing this article. Regardless of your beliefs as to whether saturated fat is a bad fat or not, consume coconut oil only in moderation, being aware that it is not all that it is MARKETED to be. What I can’t agree with is the marketing and hype that coconut oil has suddenly recieved and the false advertising as a ‘weight loss’ product.

Eat a varied and balanced diet containing healthy oils from avocado, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds and remember that coconut oil still contains high levels of fat and kilojoules.

Going back to the supermodel, she follows a mostly vegetarian diet, containing little fat, sugar or processed foods and as such her diet is also low in kilojoules. On top of this, she also does a lot of exercise. So for her, or people with a similar lifestyle, a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil a day will not be putting her above her daily kilojoule requirements. If this lifestyle is similar to yours, then coconut oil may be a suitable option for you in moderation.

Choose recipes that use smaller rather than larger amounts of coconut oil. Some recipes online using coconut oil are labelled as ‘healthy’ though contain more kilojoules per serve than a Big Mac burger.

Knowledge is power, and now that you have the knowledge you also have the power to make your own decision about coconut oil.

The Nutrition Guru The Nutrition Guru is a university qualified Nutritionist, keen cook and all round myth buster. She cares passionately about advocating for holistic health and providing credible and up to date nutrition information in order for people to make their own educated decision about nutrition.

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Please note: The information presented in this article does not take the place of individualised dietary advice from a medical professional, nor is it endorsed by the Australian Heart Foundation.

Sources: In order to form an opinion on coconut oil, a thorough review of a large number of peer reviewed scientific journal articles bas been conducted. Below are a couple you may be interested in, though is by no means the entire list of sources.
oBiochemistry 5th edition. Jeremy M Berg, John L Tymoczko, and Lubert Stryer. New York, 2002.

Medium Chain Triglyceride Oil Consumption as Part of a Weight Loss Diet Does Not Lead to an Adverse Metabolic Profile When Compared to Olive Oil. Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, Aubrey Bosarge, BA, Laura Lee T. Goree, RD, MSc, and Betty Darnell, RD. J Am Coll Nutr. 2008 October; 27(5): 547–552.

Nutritional composition of red meat. Williams, PG. Nutrition & Dietetics, 2007, 64(Suppl 4),

Medium Chain Triglyceride Oil Consumption as Part of a Weight Loss Diet Does Not Lead to an Adverse Metabolic Profile When Compared to Olive Oil. Marie-Pierre St-Onge, PhD, Aubrey Bosarge, BA, Laura Lee T. Goree, RD, MSc, and Betty Darnell, RD. J Am Coll Nutr. 2008 October; 27(5): 547–552.

Effects of Dietary Coconut Oil on the Biochemical and Anthropometric Profiles of Women Presenting Abdominal Obesity. Monica L. Assunção, Haroldo S. Ferreira, Aldenir F. dos Santos, Cyro R. Cabral Jr, Telma M. M. T. Florêncio. Lipids. 2009

You may find this article worth the read
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60 thoughts on “The Truth about Coconut Oil

  1. As always, you are both informed and balanced – the opposite of the ‘snake oil’ merchants. I understand that we all want a magic cure-all, but as someone who has spent pretty much my whole life (longer than yours, I think!) trying this and that as each new fad came out, in the hope of magic, I long ago came to the conclusion that there are no magic bullets and very few short cuts. Healthy comes from a diet high in minimally processed foods, which you cook yourself (as eating out, sadly, is seldom as healthy as one would like, delicious though it is), getting some exercise that you enjoy and a little of what you fancy from time to time. It won’t make you thin overnight (sadly), but it will prevent yo-yo-ing (which is actually worse for your health) and it will serve you better than jumping on the latest nutritional bandwagon, only to have to get off again when the next one comes along. (If anyone doubts that they are bandwagons, one only needs to look at the health repuation of the humble egg. Since my childhood it’s been in and out of fashion more often than long boots.) Keep it up guru, we need the voice of reason!

  2. But the beauty about saturated, even long-chain saturated, is the fact that it is a lot more stable – it does not (easily) oxidise or go rancid unlike the polyunsaturates. Oxidised fats are what causes the damage to our insides – it is like pouring free radicals down your throat. And I am one nutritionist that would advocate coconut oil over flaxseed! (but definitely not coconut as the cure-all) I say everything in moderation 🙂

    • Defo Rhiby! I suppose the purpose of the article was more to inform people that it isn’t something you can chug down gallons of and it’s all ok (which I’ve even witnessed many overweight people doing thinking it’s the answer to their weight loss journet and that makes me angry on behalf of them) and I just can’t agree with the marketing of it that companies have been pushing onto consumers. Everything in moderation is definately the key (except for when it comes to my hair and in that case the whole bottle is ok haha!)

      • Good to get another view! Rhiby, I would like to add that I don’t think the excitement about coconut oil is entirely unwarranted, I just object to how people glom onto every new discovery as though it holds all the answers for everything. I’m always open to learning about new things that can help health, but I object to having it shoved down my throat as a cure-all (or poison, depending on the finding). Not suggesting you’re doing that! Not at all. Just having seen so many of these things come and go the hysteria gets wearying. Good to know about the stability factor.

    • Thanks for adding this comment rhiby! This is one of the reasons we use coconut oil more than some others. Although, it can be hard to decipher all the mixed messages on different oils out there, so thanks for a bundle for this article Guru+Chef! As with everything, it’s all about moderation, right? X

      • Thanks for your comment! Absolutely, everything in moderation! We use coconut oil, but we also have the understanding that it isn’t going to solve all of life’s problems and we also see through the marketing hype of coconut oil. It does have a delish flavour and great for using if cooking at high temperatures. A little bit every so often is okey dokey!

  3. many many thanks for taking the time to write this. You have answered all my questions in a langue that I understand. Also enjoyed reading the comments, which again says, healthy eating all in moderation and exercise

  4. I LOVE THIS! Thank you so much. I do use coconut oil, but I have not a great deal of saturated fat elsewhere in my diet. oils are so confusing though. I heard rice bran was good, then I heard it was bad. Canola was good, then bad. I still don’t know who to believe!

    • I agree about it not being a new or reinvented superfood. I use it however for hair and body. I love it for our naturally curly hair. It works wonders to detangle and is very good as a hair and skin moisturizer. I will not buy regular lotion again! And as far as a hair product it is 100% pure!

    • That’s exactly right Veggie Mama! It’s all relative to the overall eating pattern of a person, and if there is little to no sat. fat then a smidgen of coconut oil here and there is fine.

      Oils are really confusing, there’s so much new information coming out. The trick is to make sure that the source of your information about an oil is reputable with no hidden agenda. Rice bran is very good, it has a really healthy fatty acid profile and has a very high smoke point so perfect for cooking with. Olive oil is the most wonderful for our health, but better served on salads, that is – not heated, as it has a lower burining point and becomes damaged when heated. Everything in moderation and you shall be fine!

      • Good blog, thanks for some great information. Interested to know why you would suggest heated olive oil “in moderation”? The fat is oxidised making it toxic. Dont heat any PUFAs. MCT oil is amazing, highly recommended.

      • Hi Kevin, thanks for a great question. This blog post really was touching only the tip of a very large iceburg, and maybe readers would benefit from a whole article on olive oil! Your correct, olive oil should t really be heated, though for some people that may have heart disease or a high risk of heart disease ( the number one killer in Australia) the risk of death for them from consuming the 50% of bad Mct’s in the coconut oil is far greater than their risk of developing cancer from rancid poly or monounsaturates. Likewise, a person with a stong family history of cancer may be more interested in steering clear of hearet damaged oils due to their high risk than fhe damaging saturated fats and their effect on their heart. So, it’s all ver relative to the person and their circumstances. The other thing is, many people don’t have the money to spend on coconut oil for every day use, with olive or rice bran a much cheaper choice.

  5. Reading this, I’m glad I haven’t started ingesting large amounts of coconut oil daily. Some have sung its praises so loudly it has made me suspicious. I wondered if it really was the miraculous substance it has been reported to be. Thanks for posting.

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  7. Thank you so much for this! Working in a health food store it infuriates me so much when my customers refuse to believe the facts I present them regarding the fatty acid profile of coconut oil. I think we’re in a tough industry with all of the “pop” nutrition advice coming from sources who may not have the most comprehensive training or understanding of nutrition themselves.

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  11. I have been using it for 2 years, I guess as a vegetarian I am at no risk like you state. However it has been fantastic on my skin, hair and overall health and well being. I give it to my dog and use it on a variety if ailments, with remarkable results! I am sold! One if the best products I have ever used, so much so, I no longer use expensive facial products and my skin at 44 looks clear, bright and simply fantastic. Please do more research on this product, as I am personally amazed at the results!

    • Hi Felicite, thanks for your comment!

      I also use it on my hair and couldn’t live without it as I have crazy frizzy locks!

      As a vegetarian, it is a wonderful product for you. The post was more aimed at the majority of the population who eat far too much meat and saturated fat, and are unsure of the science behind the oil and have made decisions to use it to lose weight.

      The article was written using my scientific knowledge fron 4 years of studying food science at university. It’s great to hear your feedback on using coconut oil. Everything in moderation is the key and looks like you have found the product which definately works for you!

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  13. an you go into more detail on using the coconut oil in your hair please? Have you noticed a difference? How do you apply it? Straight from the bottle?

  14. Hi there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that
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  15. Loved reading this, very informative and not one sided which a lot of them can be.. I do use coconut oil for some of my cooking, and as a moisturiser and as a hair oil too.. I was only saying to my hubby the other day I know its the new “in thing” and yes it does have some great benefits but still very high in sat fats, we do eat some meat but not a lot therefore I dont mind using the oil and I feel a little bit goes a long way. But in saying that I feel a balance of all the oils I choose is mine and my familys best option, avo, coconut, olive, butter, macadamia, rice bran etc. But Im a little lost at what oil you would reccomend for every day cooking with?? I always used olive, then replaced some of that with coconut or butter or well just depends on the dish but now with so much yes this oil is good no now its not well Im just confused.. ha ha ha.. Would love some suggestions.. Thanks

    • Dont heat any oil except refined (heatsafe) Coconut and MCT oil or Ghee.
      Also no need to limit your meat if you stick to grass fed.

  16. My brother suggested I would possibly like this website.
    He used to be totally right. This post truly made my day. You can not believe simply how so much time I had spent for
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  17. Great article! I’ve been looking for some unbiased information on coconut oil, I’ve just recently found your blog and am hooked!!!

  18. Even though I dont believe cocunut oil is a cure all…i believe it much more delicious than butter in cereal and believe that it is a good healthy fat source. Like any fats i try not to go overboard. Your article is well informed on many points.

    I However, I REALLY OBJECT to you saying that no doctor, nutritionist, dietician , etc would have anything positive to say about this food item….these professionals are trained conventionally to sell products for the drug companies, meat and dairy industries. Coconut oil doesn’t fit any of them. In addition, Most doctors do not receive much training in nutrition, so how would the vast majority of them have an knowledgeable opinion on the subject.

    • Hi Karen, I am an Accredited Practising Dietitian. I find it interesting that your perspective of our training influences us to recommend certain food groups over others. We are obligated as health professionals to stay up to date with the latest scientific research and base our recommendations upon this alone, if we fail to comply we simply lose our accreditation. I have never been approached by a company to push any particular food product or food group.

      I do recommend many oils to my patients and discuss the different types available and the suitability to their individual lifestyles. I often work with very fit and healthy people who are not at a particular risk of heart disease, however I very rarely recommend coconut oil. Why? Not because someone has suggested I shouldn’t, there are just so many other oils which provide essential fatty acids (these are the ones our body cannot produce and we need to get in our diet) that are going to be more important in their diet.

      I do agree with you that doctors do not receive a lot of training in nutrition, so it is important to seek out the health professional that specialises in the area if you question the advice given.

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  20. I just read a credible article that said that the coconut oil used in testing is medical grade oil distilled from coconut oil and is not the same as what we would buy off the shelf. I would never bother with the stuff as it ruins any curry i’ve ever tasted. I find it disgusting to eat. I love coconut though.

    • You’re right Poppie. There is evidence to prove that MCT’s are good for us, although many of the studies do not use MCT”s from coconut oil but from an extract and therefore does not necessarily mean that the MCT’s in coconut oil are good for us.

      We like the flavour of coconut oil, but we use it sparingly as a treat

  21. Quoted – the article starts with the faulty premise that saturated fats are bad. They are not. The science is overwhelming on this subject. Read more about saturated fats here: http://coconutoil.com/saturated_fats/

    Also, coconut oils has NOT just recently come “on the scene.” It is a traditional fat that has been consumed by billions of people in native diets throughout Asia for thousands of years. We ourselves have been documenting many of the health benefits on the Internet now for over 13 years.

    • Thanks for reading Terri.

      There is a large body of research to show saturated fats can affect our heart health. What is debatable is cholesterol, though this is an entirely different issue to that presented in this article.

      The link you have provided is to a website promoting coconut oil, which obviously displays bias and another reason for writing the article. Many of those links on the website are simply online newspaper articles. To form an opinion on a topic, I do not use these type of articles as evidence. I review the full literature from peer reviewed journal articles – the actual studies performed.

      I hold the qualification not just to look for studies, but to then be able to critically analyse those studies and break them down. How many people were studied, is there bias, was it done on a remote African community of 5 people or in 7 countries around the world. When forming an opinion on a topic, I review all of the studies on that topic. Whilst there may be 3 studies which show coconut oil can cause weight loss, there may be 17 that show it does not. My opinion is therefore formed on the entire body of research not just the first 3 I can find.

      You can find a study to support anything you wish, even that smoking is good for you. The difference is being able to critically anlyse the entire research with an open mind based upon science in order to form an opinion, not just finding a studies to back up a theory.

    • In addition, coconut oil is most definitely a recent addition to our western diet. Whilst it has been used in Asia and Pacific countries for many years, it is well know that it is impossible to apply the lifestyle particularly of pacific countries such as Tahiti with that of western countries. Countries consuming coconut oil often hunt and forage for their food, meaning they are drastically more physically active and items such as coconut oil would not be in abundance like it is in western civilisations today. The effect of coconut oil on these populations would be greatly different to the sedentary lifestyles of western countries that are already high in fat and particularly meat. It is like comparing apples and oranges.

      • I have to agree with kcohen2014 and Terri Schelpe. Lots of evidence to prove that saturated fats are essential for heart health. Correlation does not determine causation – tell that to Ancel Keys who created our fear of saturated fat on the back of a study in which he ignored 3/4 of the data to find a correlation which matched his hypothesis.

        Quoting Marks Daily Apple: “Subsequent controlled experiments to measure the effects of saturated fat have been either inconclusive, poorly designed, or completely unsupportive of the saturated fat-is-evil hypothesis, but because the starting point assumes it to be true, those inconclusive or unsupportive results become aberrations while the poorly designed studies become canon.”

        Must read: http://wholehealthsource.blogspot.com.au/2009/12/dirty-little-secret-of-diet-heart.html

      • I don’t disagree that saturated fats are needed, and I haven’t said this in my article. What I have stated is saturated fats consumed in large quantities.

        Ansell Keyes was certainly not the only person to find a link between saturated fat and heart disease, he is old news.

        If you are 120% confident that you can advise people that ‘saturated fat is GOOD for our health’ and rest assured that there is not one possibility of causing ill health to one single human being by giving that advice, then you can certainly go ahead.

        I base my opinion on the entire literature, and if there is any element of doubt, which there certainly is from my perspective, I will not be advising the general population who are already obese/overweight and suffering chronic disease (that’s the reality of our world), that saturated fats are GOOD.

        It all comes down to the language used. I can guarantee the minute we say that saturated fats are ‘good’ it gives every single person the permission to go and eat McDonalds, their 300 gram steak every night, and their fried doughnuts.

      • You are 100% correct – Correlation does not imply causation. And that is the sole reason why saturated fat was demonised and now we still have people peddling the line that saturated is somehow evil.

        In regards to your comment “It all comes down to the language used. I can guarantee the minute we say that saturated fats are ‘good’ it gives every single person the permission to go and eat McDonalds, their 300 gram steak every night, and their fried doughnuts.” the key is, as you say, the language.

        No one is suggesting that processed, manufactured fats such as MacDonalds or Doughnuts are good for you. Of course the language needs to reflect that it is good quality, natural, unprocessed saturated fats that lead to reduced rates of many diseases (especially when combined with the elimination of heavily processed grains, sugars and vegetable oils) .

        These fats that are recommended include the following;

        grass fed meat, fat and marrow
        coconut oil & other coconut products
        grass fed butter
        avocado
        pasture raised eggs
        organic cacao

  22. Very informative , and I agree that there are no short cuts to good health, but healthy eating is certainly the place to start. I use both coconut oil,and water, but the oil has it’s limited uses, and the water is a daily thing.

    • Thanks for reading Larry. That was the motivation behind the article, not to demonise coconut oil, but to just create awareness that it is not a shortcut to weight loss or good health and to be aware of the amount of marketing hype that influences our decisions.

      • See this article @ http://www.dietdoctor.com/stunning-saturated-fat-and-the-european-paradox

        I was just shown the diagram above, recently published in the journal Nutrition. It’s based on WHO and FAO statistics over the average intake of saturated fat in 41 European countries in 1998 (the latest available data), and the age-adjusted risk of dying from heart disease. I added some explanations.

        More saturated fat, less heart disease

        It’s a stunner. The French paradox is actually a French-Swiss-Icelandic-Swedish-German-Austrian-etc.-paradox!

        France eats the most saturated fat and has the lowest rate of heart disease deaths in all of Europe.
        Switzerland eats second-most saturated fat and has the second-lowest mortality.
        The countries eating more saturated fat have less heart disease, period.
        Less saturated fat, more heart disease

        And the countries eating less saturated fat? Like Georgia, Moldavia, Azerbaijan etc.? Well, they seem to have the highest mortality from heart disease in Europe.

      • Thanks for the link. Correlation does not imply causation. This means, just because one measurement goes up at the same time as another, does not mean that one caused the other.

        For example, you could do a study on levels of heart disease which show it increases each year and find that the sales of fishing rods have increased each year also. It doesn’t mean that the fishing rods have caused the heart disease.

        The diet doctor also mentions this in his article.

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