Should we eat coconut oil?
Coconuts and the oil extracted from their fruit have supplied humans with an important nutrient source for thousands of years. Some consider coconut oil so important to the diet that it has been called a "functional food" which provides a health benefit above and beyond the basic nutrients.
Every expert agreed that coconut oil can still be considered a health food, due to its medium-chain triglycerides, lauric acid, and a general misunderstanding of saturated fat. -MindBodyGreen
How is coconut oil digested and absorbed?
One of the major benefits of eating raw foods is that they contain all their natural enzymes. In the case of coconut oil, the lipase provided by the coconut oil is joined by a weak salivary lipase and gastric lipase, which hydrolyze the fat into its monoglycerides and fatty acids. Unlike pancreatic lipase, these three types of lipase work in an acidic environment and do not require bile to expose the glycerol–fatty acid bonds for lipase to hydrolyze them. When there are no natural enzymes remaining in the fat, then the salivary and gastric lipases must carry the workload alone. In general, digestion is dramatically improved when enzymes naturally occurring in raw food are able to spare the body from having to provide one hundred percent of the needed enzymes load.2
Of the fats in coconut oil, approximately sixty-five percent are short and medium-chain fatty acids. These fatty acids (caprylic C8:0, capric C10:0 and lauric C12:0) do not require bile salts for emulsification, are directly absorbed in the small intestine, travel via the portal blood to the liver, and are able to be metabolized without the carnitine transport system.3 Rarely deposited in adipose tissue and seldom found on chylomicrons, these fatty acids provide a quick supply of energy for the body and are less likely than vegetable oils to cause weight gain.4
What types of fat are in coconut oil?
Coconut oil contains eight different fatty acids, the most predominant being lauric acid at 49%. Other fatty acids in coconut oil include: 18% myristic acid, 8% caprylic acid, 8% palmitic acid, 7% capric acid, 6% oleic acid, 2% linoleic acid and 2% stearic acid. Ninety-two percent of the fatty acids in coconut oil are saturated.4
Since 8% of coconut oil is unsaturated, it could be expected that these unsaturated fatty acids become rancid, but after leaving coconut oil at room temperature for one year, testing showed no rancidity. Possibly, the saturated fats present in coconut oil have a protective effect on the unsaturated fatty acids.3
What makes lauric acid special?
Lauric acid is saturated, and at 12 carbons long, is considered a medium-chain fatty acid. It is found predominantly in coconut oil, but is also found in human breast milk with smaller amounts in butterfat, palm kernel oil, as well as a few lesser-known oils. Because the body produces lauric acid only in the mammary glands, it has been called a conditionally essential fatty acid.
Present in breast milk, lauric acid is what protects the immune system of newborns.4 This nutritious medium chain fatty acid is also found in infant formulas and tube feedings, and is used by physicians to feed those who are critically ill. Converted in the GI to monolaurin, this mono- glyceride has been shown to promote life-long healthy immune function.
Does eating coconut oil contribute to weight gain?
In an attempt to fatten their animals, farmers in the 1940’s gave coconut oil to their livestock. But instead of seeing the expected weight gain, their livestock became active, hungry and lean. Conversely, by feeding their animals corn and soybeans, farmers were able to fatten their livestock on less food. It was determined that corn and soy had an anti-thyroid effect on the animals whereas the coconut oil had a thyroid-enhancing effect, which stimulated metabolism.
Another study looked at the weight gain of animals fed coconut oil versus unsaturated fats. At the conclusion of the study, results showed that the animals’ level of obesity was directly proportional to the ratio of unsaturated oils to coconut oil consumed; animals that ate a large amount of coconut oil were lean, and those that ate just a small amount of unsaturated fat were fat. There was no correlation to the total amount of fat consumed, but rather to the type of fat eaten.3
We see similar results with humans. Population studies looking at people groups that eat only natural, unprocessed fats show that they do not have a problem with obesity. The Philippines, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and the Tokelau Islands have some of the highest per capita consumption of coconut oil in the world, yet obesity is seldom seen there. Since the removal of coconut oil from the American diet and the substitution with large amounts of unsaturated omega-6 oils, also known as domestic vegetable oils (corn, safflower, sunflower, cottonseed, soybean, sesame, canola etc.), the prevalence of obesity has increased at an alarming rate. America is fatter than ever.
In part, coconut oil’s effect on metabolism can be explained by its effect on thyroid. By the 1950s, a clear connection between unsaturated fat intake and a suppressed thyroid and metabolic rate had been established. Unsaturated fats not only cause general oxidative damage in the body, but they also damage the mitochondria and suppress tissue response to thyroid hormone. By contrast, the consumption of coconut oil activates metabolism and prevents the inhibitory effects of unsaturated fats on the thyroid.3
Yet another weight-loss advantage of tropical oils is that they have 2.56% fewer calories per gram of fat than the average domestic vegetable oil. Short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids have lower caloric value than long-chain fatty acids. Due to the abundance of short and medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil (65%), there are 100 fewer calories per pound than in unsaturated vegetable oils. By comparison, domestic vegetable oils have 100% long-chain fatty acids and are a mixture of unsaturated and saturated fatty acids.4
Aren’t saturated fats, including coconut oil, harmful to heart health?
There are many impediments to heart health. Among the culprits are oxidized omega-6 fats and trans fats in the diet and the presence of toxic chemicals in the body. In animal studies, heart health was compromised by feeding them linoleic acid, an omega-6 essential fatty acid. However, adding saturated fat to a diet high in omega-6 oils has been shown to be protective to heart cells.5 Coconut oil’s rich concentration of lauric acid has been shown to promote a healthy cardiovascular system.3
The lobby supporting the edible oil industry in the United States capitalized on the trend against saturated fats more than five decades ago. They were successful in getting the U.S. government to modify the nation’s dietary
goals and they criticized coconut oil for its role in America’s declining cardiovascular health. As a result, coconut oil was removed from confections, restaurant fryers and even from movie theatre popcorn. Saturated fat was replaced with omega-6 fats, predominately in the form of domestic vegetable oils.
Although linoleic acid is an essential fatty acid, today’s diet provides an extreme imbalance of omega-6 oils to omega-3 oils, which is detrimental to maintaining heart health. Fortunately, multiple studies and clinical trials are continuing to vindicate coconut oil with regard to cardiovascular health, demonstrating that coconut oil does not lead to high serum cholesterol.6 Instead, evidence now shows that the addition of coconut oil can help maintain healthy cholesterol levels already in the normal range.3
Promoted to the public as a necessity for heart health, unsaturated oils were touted for their ability to slightly lower serum cholesterol. However, studies now show that their ability to lower cholesterol is really due to other toxic actions, whereby the liver holds onto cholesterol rather than releasing it into the blood and/or cholesterol is transferred from the blood to body tissues.3,7
Additionally, when excess unsaturated fatty acids are incorporated into the cellular membrane, the membrane loses structural integrity and becomes limp. In an attempt to restore stiffness, the membrane must sequester cholesterol from the blood. Serum cholesterol levels are consequently slightly lowered, however studies do not show a corresponding decrease in cardiovascular disease. When trans fats are consumed, the damage is even greater. Since trans fatty acids are similar to natural fats, the body incorporates them into the cell membrane as well, altering its structure. This altered trans-structure creates havoc with thousands of important chemical reactions.7
We’ve already discussed how unsaturated oils can be detrimental to thyroid health. The thyroid helps maintain healthy cholesterol levels, not by suppressing synthesis, but by promoting cholesterol’s conversion into hormones and bile salts. For example, the amount of cholesterol present in the blood as it enters the ovary controls the amount of progesterone that the ovary produces. This is true for other steroid-forming tissues, including the adrenals and the brain.3
Evidence suggests that adding coconut oil to a balanced diet can not only improve the function of the thyroid, but can help normalize serum cholesterol levels by promoting its conversion into pregnenolone. Known to be systemically protective, pregnenolone and progesterone are able to function in an anti-oxidative, pro- myelination and pro-memory capacity.3
Additionally, trans fats in the diet have been shown to raise Lipoprotein[a], whereas a diet rich in saturated fats has actually been shown to lower Lp[a]. 4
In tropical cultures where there is high consumption of coconut oil, serum cholesterol levels are consistently lower than levels seen in the U.S. where the diet is predominately high in omega-6 oils. Cardiovascular disease doctor, William P. Castelli, of the famous Framingham, Massachusetts heart study, officially stated, “In Framingham, Mass., the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum cholesterol.” 8
By replacing the commonly used omega-6 vegetable oils with coconut oil, studies show improved serum lipid profiles over those following the American Heart Association diet.4 Studies show that when it comes to maintaining
a healthy heart, coconut oil is superior to safflower oil.4 In addition, animals fed a coconut oil-rich diet had fewer
cholesterol deposits in their livers as well as elsewhere in their bodies.6 According to leading lipid biochemist, Dr. Mary Enig, “Eating real coconut oil doesn’t cause cholesterol deposits: never did, never will.”4
What about coconut oil healthy blood sugar levels?
Adversely affecting cell function, unsaturated fatty acids are both easily oxidized and incorporated into the cell membrane. This inhibits the ability of insulin to bind to cell receptor sites and transport glucose into the cell. Conversely, natural coconut oil does not oxidize or harm the cell membrane, and it improves the binding affinity of insulin, thus improving the cell’s utilization of glucose.9 Both coconut oil and simple carbohydrates are able to deliver quick energy to the body, but coconut oil does not cause the spike in insulin that carbohydrates do.
Is coconut oil beneficial for the brain?
Initial studies have shown that a ketogenic diet, very low in carbohydrates, can be beneficial to optimal brain function. Typically, in a healthy brain, there is sufficient energy production in the mitochondria, effective transportation by ATP of chemicals within the cells for metabolism, and efficient functioning of microglia cells, neuronal support cells that are a key part of the central nervous system (CNS). The ketogenic diet is highly neuroprotective, encouraging the healthy execution of these important cerebral tasks.14
Coconut oil is a rich source of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs), readily converted into ketones by the liver. Although functioning best in the presence of a very low carbohydrate diet, a portion of the MCFAs will convert to ketones regardless of what other foods are eaten. By consuming adequate amounts of MCFAs, most any type of diet can be transformed into a type of ketogenic diet. Since coconut oil is approximately 65% MCFAs, two tablespoons of coconut oil can produce enough ketones to improve brain function, and keep brain cells healthy. Improved memory, cognition and attention have been reported in trials using a ketogenic diet.15
Can coconut oil benefit overall cellular health?
Proper glucose levels are essential for cellular integrity. Coconut oil is one of nature’s richest sources of MCFAs and increased consumption, via a ketogenic diet, clearly can enhance cellular health.14
Read more about the Ketogenic Diet!
What are some other benefits of saturated fats like coconut oil?
- Saturated fats enable calcium to be effectively incorporated into the bones, making it an essential component to the maintenance of skeletal structure.16
- Alcohol and medications like Tylenol are processed in the liver and coconut oil is hepato-protective by inhibiting free-radical formation through its MCFAs.17
- Replacing processed vegetable oils with MCFA-rich coconut oil enhances immune system function.17
- Beneficial omega-3 fatty acids show improved utilization and retention in the body’s tissues when saturated fats are present.17
World richest sources of high quality saturated fats
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- Lee, Lita, Lisa Turner and Burton The Enzyme Cure. California: alternativemedicine.com Inc., 1998.
- Loomis, Howard, Enzymes, The Key to Health. Wisconsin: 21st Century Nutrition Publishing, 2007.
- Peat, “Coconut Oil.” <http://www.raypeat.com/articles/articles/coconut-oil.shtml>
- Mary Know Your Fats: The Complete Primer for Understanding the Nutrition of Fats, Oils and Cholesterol. Maryland: Bethesda, 2010.
- Enig, “Coconut: In Support of Good Health in the 21st Century.” Asian Paciic Coconut Community, 36th Session, 1999.
- Enig, “Health and Nutritional Benefits from Coconut Oil: An Important Functional Food for the 21st Century.” AVOC Lauric Oils Symposium, Vietnam, Apr 1996.
- Enig, Mary and Sally “The Oiling of America – Part 1.” Nexus, Vol. 6, No.1, March, 2008.
- Castelli, William “Concerning the Possibility of a Nut...” Arch Intern Med. 1992: 152 (7): 1371
- Fife, The Coconut Oil Miracle. New York, Penguin, 2004.
- American Diabetes Association: What I Can Eat: <http://diabetes.org/food-and-itness/food/ what-can- i-eat/fat-and-diabetes.html#Healthy_Fats>
- Salmerón, , et al. “Dietary Fat Intake and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes in Women.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2001: 73:1019-26.
- Turner, Nigel, et “Enhancement of Muscle Mitochondrial Oxidative Capacity and Alterations in Insulin Action are Lipid-Species Dependent: Potent Tissue-Speciic Effects of Medium Chain Fatty Acids.” Diabetes. 2010: 59(5): 1283.
- Erasmus, Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill. Tennessee: Alive, 1993.
- Blaylock, Russell “The Good Fat: Ketones Promote Brain Health, Inhibit Cancer.” Blaylock Wellness Report 7:10 (2010)
- Fife, “Conquering Alzheimer’s with Coconut Ketones.” <http://www.coconutresearch center.org/Conquering%20Alzheimers%20with%20Coconut%20Ketones.htm
- Enig, Mary and Sally Eat Fat, Lose Fat: The Healthy Alternative to Trans Fats. New York: Penguin, 2005.
- Enig, Mary and Sally Nourishing Traditions. Washington DC: New Trends, 2001.
- Moody, "The AHA Just Declared Coconut Oil Unhealthy. Here's Why Functional Medicine Doctors Disagree." <https://www.mindbodygreen.com/articles/is-coconut-oil-unhealthy-american-heart-association-study>
Written by Deborah Lance, MPH, RD
The information supplied in this article comes from a variety of authors and sources, and these statement have not been evaluated by the FDA. The information is not intended to diagnose, treat, prevent or cure any disease.