Coconut Oil: The Healthy Saturated Fat


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Posted:

12.06.10

Written by:
Larry Trivieri Jr.

For years doctors and other health experts have cautioned us about the dangers of consuming foods high in saturated fats. With good reason, as such foods have been linked to a variety of serious health conditions, especially heart disease. As a general rule, saturated fats should be replaced with healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as those found in fish, seeds, nuts, avocados, and olives and olive oil.

But as with nearly all rules, when it comes to saturated fats there is one major and very healthy exception: coconut oil.

Why Coconut Oil Is Good For You
Unlike other saturated fats, which are primarily derived from animals, coconut oil comes from coconuts, which have been shown to be one of the richest single food sources of vitamins, minerals, and amino acids in the world. A staple food throughout Malaysian, Polynesian, and other cultures, coconuts are loaded with many of the amino acids your body needs to manufacture protein, as well as important minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, and potassium. It is also an excellent source of vitamin C and vitamin B2 (riboflavin). All of these same nutrients are also contained in coconut oil.

Although coconut oil also contains 90 percent saturated fat, there is one major difference between its saturated fat content and the saturated fats derived from animal foods. The difference is that the fat in coconut oil is a medium-chain fatty acid (MCFA). By contrast, saturated and unsaturated fats in other foods (both animal and plant foods), as well as most vegetable oils, are made up of long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs). MCFAs are more easily digested than other fats. More importantly, unlike LCFAs, which get stored in your body’s cells, MCFAs are stored in the liver, where they get converted into a readily available source of energy.

In addition, nearly half (45%) of the fat in coconut oil is in the form of lauric acid, a substance your body converts into monolaurin. Monolaurin is the same compound found in breast milk that is used to boost the immune system of newborn babies. Research has also shown that monolaurin helps protect the health of the brain and plays an important role in maintaining the health of your body’s bones.

To summarize, coconut oil provides an immediate source of energy, helps to strengthen the immune system, and protects both your brain and your bones. No wonder it has now being touted as a “super food” by a growing number of health experts. But its health benefits don’t stop there.

Coconut Oil Is Good For Your Heart and Can Help You Lose Weight
One of the most important differences between coconut oil compared to other saturated fats and LCFAs is that coconut oil is good for your heart, whereas the other types of fat have been shown to adversely affect cholesterol levels and increase the risk of atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) and heart disease. Additionally, because coconut oil is stored in the liver instead of your body’s cells, it not only does not cause weight gain, but can actually help you win “the battle of the bulge.” Both of these facts have been verified by decades’ worth of scientific studies.

In study published in 1981, researchers examined approximately 2,500 people in two Polynesian island cultures. Coconuts or coconut oil was consumed by the study participants at every meal, yet researchers found no evidence of elevated cholesterol levels among the participants. More importantly, researchers also found that heart disease was rare among the participants and that “there is no evidence of the high saturated fat intake having a harmful effect in these populations.”

A more recent study of 40 women with abdominal obesity found that daily consumption of coconut oil over three months improved HDL (good) cholesterol, and lowered LDL (bad) cholesterol, levels while also resulting in a reduction in both waist size and overall body-mass index (BMI).

Another study of women found that coconut oil was superior to monounsaturated acids in terms of its beneficial effects on lipoprotein A, a risk factor for heart disease. And a study published in 2003 conclusively showed that people in countries where coconut oil is traditionally consumed in the highest amounts have far lower serum cholesterol levels and rates of heart disease compared to people in other countries due to coconut oil’s ability to raise HDL and lower LDL cholesterol levels and protect against atherosclerosis.

Other Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
In addition to the above-mentioned benefits of coconut oil, further research has shown that it offers potent protection against infectious agents, including bacteria and viruses, including Chlamydia pneumoniae and Cytomegalovirus. It has also been shown to be effective for preventing and reversing systemic yeast overgrowth (candida) and for quickly neutralizing H. pylori, the infectious agent linked to ulcers and stomach cancer.

Studies also show that coconut oil helps to protect against diabetes, aids in digestion, improves the body’s ability to absorb nutrients, and can be helpful for reducing fever. Not surprisingly, because it is stored in the liver, coconut oil is also able to improve liver function and protect against a variety of liver diseases.

Conclusion
Given all of these benefits, coconut oil is clearly something you should consider including as part of your overall healthy eating plan. Because it is highly stable, it is an excellent cooking oil, making it a good choice for sautéing and baking. You can also consume it by itself, taking one to two tablespoons per day.

To obtain the most benefit from coconut oil, be sure to choose virgin, organic (beware of brands that are genetically-modified), unbleached, and unrefined coconut oil, and be sure that the brand you choose is made without heat processing and does not contain chemicals. You can find this information on the product label.

References
Assuncao ML, et. al. Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity. Lipids 2009. Jul 44;(7):593-601.

Dayrit CS. Coconut Oil: Atherogenic or Not? (What therefore causes Atherosclerosis. Philippine J Cardiol 2003. July-Spet;31(3):97-104.

Han JR, et.al. Effects of dietary medium-chain triglyceride on weight loss and insulin sensitivity in a group of moderately overweight free-living type 2 diabetic Chinese subjects. Metabolism 2007. Jul;56(7):985-991.

Intahphuak S, et al. Anti-inflammatory, analgesic, and antipyretic activities of virgin coconut oil. Pharm Biol 2010 Feb. 48(2):151-7.

Muller H, et. al. A diet rich in coconut oil reduces diurnal postprandial variations in circulating tissue plasminogen activator antigen and fasting lipoprotein (a) compared with a diet rich in unsaturated fat in women. J Nutr 2003. Nov;133(11):3422-3427.

Page KA, et.al. Medium-chain fatty acids improve cognitive function in intensively treated type 1 diabetic patients and support in vitro synaptic transmission during acute hypoglycemia. Diabetes 2009. May;58(5):1237-1244.

Petschow BW, Batema RP, Ford LL. Susceptibility of Helicobacter pylori to bactericidal properties of medium-chain monoglycerides and free fatty acids. Antimicrob Agents Chemother 1996. Fen; 40(2):302-306.

Prior IA, Davidson F, Salmond CE, Czochanska Z. Cholesterol, coconuts and diet in Polynesian atolls—a natural experiment; the Pukapuka and Toklau island studies. Am J Clin Nutr 1981. 34:1552-61.

About the Author

Larry Trivieri Jr.

Mr. Larry Trivieri Jr. is a frequent contributor to Integrative Health Review, the National University System Center for Integrative Health’s free open-access health resource. Larry Trivieri Jr.

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