A study published in the medical journal Tropical and Geographical Medicine found that coronary heart disease, the worldâ€™s number one cause of death, is virtually unknown in a coconut eating population of Sri Lanka. The Veddas or â€œForest Peopleâ€ are the indigenous people of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalase race, which makes up the majority of the Sri Lanka population, migrated from India some two thousand years ago. The lifestyle, social characteristics, language, and religious beliefs of the Veddas are quite different from those of the Sinhalese.
At the beginning of the 20th century there were still many Vedda communities in the South Eastern jungles of Sri Lanka, existing as they have for thousands of years, living in huts constructed of mud bricks and eating wild fruit, yams, and coconut, and hunting for game using bows and arrows. Over time, the Vedda communities gradually adapted the modern culture of the expanding Sinhalese population. By the 1980s there were only two traditional Vedda communities remaining, isolated from the general population deep in the jungle.
As part of a massive development project, the jungle homeland of the Veddas was declared a Natural Reserve and the Veddas were forced to resettle to other areas. Unable to hunt or gather foods as they had in their jungle home, they adapted an agrarian lifestyle. This study was carried out in the mid 1980s, before the resettlement scheme commenced.
The coconut palm is very important to the Veddas. It provides them with materials for making tools, eating utensils, and rope, to build fires, and most importantly provides a steady source of food. Veddas live off the land and eat whatever they can gather and kill. Most fruit bearing plants produce seasonally. The coconut palm, however, produces coconuts year round, providing them with an unending supply of food. The majority of dietary fat in the traditional Vedda population comes from coconut and wild game, both high in saturated fat. Researchers at the University of Sri Lanka department of medicine were interested in how their high-fat diet affected their health, particularly their cardiovascular health. Before the Veddas were integrated into Sinhalese culture and adopted to agriculture and modern foods, the researchers wanted to study their health. What effect did their traditional high-saturated fat diet have on their health? That was the question they wanted to answer.
The study examined 207 adults 20-83 years of age. A detailed medical history was taken of each subject, which included level of daily physical activity, dietary and smoking habits, and any adverse symptoms, with special emphasis on the presence of cardiac chest pain. A complete physical examination and blood analysis was performed with special attention to the cardiovascular system.
None of the subjects reported any heart related symptoms such as angina (chest pain) or myocardial infarction (heart attack). Using an electrocardiogram, there were no features of heart disease found in the any of the subjects. Despite the fact that 39 percent of the men smoked, only 3.8 percent demonstrated elevated blood pressure, which is much lower than in the Sinhalese population. Blood cholesterol and triglyceride levels were average and comparable to those of the Sinhalese, although the Veddasâ€™ HDL cholesterol (the good cholesterol which protects against heart disease) was higher. Coconut consumption is known to raise HDL cholesterol, so this may have been the reason for the superior HDL levels. In summary, there was absolutely no evidence of heart disease among this population.1 This is not surprising, similar studies of coconut eating populations in other parts of the world have produced the same results.
Coconut is not only important for the Veddas, but for all Sri Lankans. The Sinhalese also enjoy coconut, which is used in many of their traditional dishes. In fact, coconut oil provides the primary source of oil in their diet, or so it did until recent years.
In 1978 each man, woman, and child in Sri Lanka consumed the equivalent of 120 coconuts a year. That is a lot of coconut and a lot of coconut oil. That would equate to drinking nearly 30 quarts of coconut oil per year. If coconut oil caused heart disease or even just encouraged it, heart disease would be clearly evident in this population. Keep in mind that this was an average rate of consumption for all people, even babies and young children who ate very little oil or none at all. Which means that the adult population was consuming far more than 30 quarts of coconut oil annually, 40 quarts is more like it. However, during that year Sri Lanka had one of the lowest rates of heart disease in the world. Only one death out of every 100,000 was cause by coronary heart disease. In the United States coconut oil constituted less than 1 percent of the fat consumed and people were increasingly turning to polyunsaturated soybean oil and margarine as their preferred choices of fat, the heat attack death rate was 280 times higher! Despite the fact that Sri Lankans were consuming about 40 quarts of coconut oil each year, heart disease was rare.
Over the past several decades coconut and coconut oil consumption in Sri Lanka has drastically declined. In 1953 average consumption was 136 coconuts a year. In 1978 it dropped to 120. By 1991 it was down to 90 and has continued to fall. The theory that saturated fat promoted heart disease was introduced in the late 1950s and gradually gained acceptance. People became fearful of coconut oil and other saturated fats and began to replace it with polyunsaturated oils. Even in coconut growing areas of the world, like Sri Lanka, people began eating soybean oil and margarine in place of coconut oil.
During this time, an interesting thing happened. As coconut oil consumption declined, the incidence of heart disease increased! As people began to eat less coconut oil and eat more soybean oil, the heart attack death rate climbed. Yet, among those populations within the country where coconut oil was still the primary source of fat in the diet, heart disease remained a rarity.
Today Sri Lanka no longer has the lowest heart disease death rate. While certain groups of people in the country who use coconut oil liberally are not as affected, the general population has experienced an epidemic of heart problems thanks to the introduction of imported polyunsaturated vegetable oils. Heart attack is now, like in most other countries, the number one cause of death, accounting for 11 percent of all deaths in the country. This is still lower than in the US and most other western countries, but far higher than it was just a few decades ago when coconut oil was a mainstay in the