Why is Coconut Oil Good For You?

We have been brain-washed into believing that saturated fat is bad for us.  I have always had trouble with this idea because both of my sets of grandparents were dairy farmers whose diets were heavy in delicious saturated fats.  None of them had a weight problem, nor did any of their 15 children.  Indeed, my maternal grandmother never weighed more than 90 pounds soaking wet, even after a dozen or so children! She and my mother loved buttermilk (yuck), put heavy cream in everything, and slathered toast with homemade butter.  I can still remember the mouthwatering poached our eggs mom made by poaching them in butter and milk.Speaking of the milk that we drank growing up, it had to have the cream skimmed off the top.  This we used to make our own version of “ice cream”.  We lived between Kings Mills and Loveland, Ohio back then, close to Landen Farms.  (This was when it was still an actual farm, now it is a subdivision.)  My mother was no fan of the milkman and his homogenized/pasteurized dairy products!  So she drove to Landen for milk, eggs and butter several times a week. Old habits die hard.My grandparents are all gone.  Some died young, some reached old age, but none were overweight by today’s standards.  My mother is also gone.  She died very young of a rare form of lymphoma, but was also a normal weight all her life despite what would be considered today a diet very high in saturated fat.  Every once in a while when I put the unsweetened apple butter on my whole grain or pumpernickel toast,  I remember how mom used to butter her toast with regular full-fat butter, then put on a layer of peanut butter and then top it off with a liberal amount of apple butter! Scrumptious!Just one more walk down memory lane;  if you happened to catch the John F. Kennedy special that aired on HBO this winter, you may have noticed, as I did, how different everyone looked.  At first I thought they all looked like concentration camp victims because they seemed so thin.  Then I realized, they were all a normal weight and I’m just not accustomed to seeing so many people in one place that are a normal weight.  For example, I am sitting in the Barnes & Nobel bookstore in the Sycamore Center mall, which is north of Cincinnati, Ohio, a pretty typical Midwest city.  Of the 17 people within eyesight, 4 are a normal weight, and the rest range from overweight to morbidly obese.  What’s my point? I would be willing to bet that most of the people that I can see, whether or not they are overweight,  do not drink whole milk or eat real butter.  And I’m not even sure you can buy buttermilk anymore, so I’m almost positive they’re not drinking that. (Thank Goodness! Sorry mom.) I would also be willing to bet that at least a sizeable proportion of the overweight individuals I can see try to avoid saturated fats.  If I’m correct, it isn’t working.  So maybe saturated fats are not the problem.

It turns out that the best fat we could be eating is coconut fat and it is definitely a saturated fat.  I use it for all baked goods, popcorn (yum) and anything else I am frying.  I have also recently switched to whole organic butter and whole milk, to avoid MSG, both of which have saturated fat, with no adverse effects so far, although I don’t use a lot of either.  I actually haven’t ever completely avoided saturated fats, as too many of the foods I love are made with them, such as chocolate, goat or swiss cheese not to mention the occasional steak.  I do avoid trans fats and only eat beef, fowl and pork that are organic and free range.

So what really determines whether or not a fat is good for you?

We know that trans fat raises your “bad” (LDL) cholesterol and lowers your “good” (HDL) cholesterol and that this increases your risk of heart disease. What you may not know is that it’s another man-made, or genetically modified substance that is added to our food, especially the foods we eat as snacks and breakfast foods to preserve the food’s shelf life. Some shortenings and margarines are very high in trans fat.

Until very recently, it was added to commercial baked goods, such as crackers, cookies and cakes, and many fried foods, such as doughnuts and french fries, without notice to the consumer.  Presently, it must be designated as part of the nutritional information on the package.  Our government has made it clear that these things have to be apparent to us so that we can avoid them, right? Not quite.  Food manufacturers can still secretly add them to any food and state on the package that the food is “trans fat free” as long as the amount is below .5% per serving.  How often do you eat one serving of a snack food?

I can’t help wondering how this negotiation went.

The FDA says,This stuff is really bad and causes terrible diseases that cost people their lives and ups the cost of health care.  Consumers have to be notified!”

And the food manufacturers say, “That’s not fair, it will cost us a fortune in terms of shorter shelf life. Our profits will go down.” And the FDA says,Oh, ok, you can put it in and not mention it, as long as it is below .5%.” Seriously?

Why Is Coconut Oil So Good For You? It’s a Saturated Fat, Right?

We’ve been told for the past 20 years that it is the saturation of the fat molecule that matters.  There are saturated fats, which we try to avoid, and the monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats that we try to include. But there is another less well-known system of classification that is based on the length of the carbon chain within each fatty acid.  In this system there are short-chain fatty acids (SCFA), medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), and long-chain fatty acids (LCFA). Coconut oil is composed predominately of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCT).

  The vast majority of fats and oils in our diets, 98% to 100%, whether they are saturated or unsaturated, or come from animals or plants,  composed of long-chain fatty acids (LCFA). Both the saturated and unsaturated fat found in meat, milk, eggs, and plants (including most all vegetable oils) are composed of LCFA.

While we have been led to believe that all saturated fatty acids are bad for us, the MCFA from the coconut, which is a saturated fat, has health benefits that rival those of fish oil, or omega-3 fats. In general, they do not raise cholesterol, but actually protect against heart disease.   They also help to lower the risk of both atherosclerosis and they can be a significant weight loss aid.

To read the history and learn of the many other benefits of the mighty coconut and it’s healing oil check out Coconut Secret  and the Coconut Research Center. For a somewhat biased, but interesting article on saturated fats in general see this article “The Truth About Saturated Fat” from T-Nation.

If you aren’t already confused enough about fat, let’s really get into it. Omega-3’s also come in short- and long-chain varieties. The short-chain form, which is alpha-linolenic acid, is found in flaxseed oil (53%), canola oil (11%), English walnuts (9%), and soybean oil (7%).  The long-chain, or marine omega-3’s are found mainly in fish and shellfish. Compared with their plant Omega 3 counterparts, the marine long chain Omega 3’s have two advantages; Firstly, they are highly unsaturated.  Secondly, they are excellent sources of low fat protein.  Bottom line, they are critical to our neurological well being.  Fish oil, when combined with exercise, is the only thing presently known to prevent Alzheimer’s.

So How Does it Work?

Long chain fatty acids (LCFA) found in plant and animal fat are not easily absorbed by the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and require pancreatic enzymes and bile salts to break them down so that they can be absorbed by the intestine. Next, the long chain fatty acids must go through a complicated process through which they are delivered to a variety of tissues, including adipose, cardiac and skeletal tissue, and are then transported to the liver, and are finally oxidized for energy use.  This is how all saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and cholesterol that consists of long chain fatty acids (almost all of your dietary fat) is transported throughout the body.

In contrast, medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil are absorbed by the GI tract with ease, they do not require any pancreatic enzymes to break them down, which means less work for your pancreas. Next, medium chain fatty acids are transported through the blood stream, directly to the liver, where they go directly into mitochondria and are immediately oxidized for energy. Medium chain fatty acids from coconut oil do not get packaged into lipoproteins, and do not get transported to a variety of tissues and are not stored as body fat, they go directly to the liver and are metabolized for energy.

The bottom line is that medium chain fatty acids from coconut oil produces almost exclusively energy, whereas, long chain fatty acids found in all other dietary fats produce body fat (and some energy).

Coconut Oil Boosts Energy

Because the medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil are easily and rapidly transported into the mitochondria, unlike long chain fatty acids, they are immediately used for energy, which “heats up” the body and increases metabolism. Several animal studies and clinical studies have proven that ingestion of coconut oil increases metabolism and decreases body fat both in animal studies performed on mice, and humans. Rats that were fed a diet consisting of medium chain fatty acids had less subcutaneous fat, a visibly evident decrease in overall body fat, and increased metabolism and increased thermogenesis.[1]

The energy burst that is produced by medium chain fatty acids is also important for athletic endurance. In one study, researchers tested the physical endurance of mice that were fed medium chain fatty acids vs. those fed a diet high in long chain fatty acids for six weeks. The mice were subjected to a swimming endurance test, where they had to swim against a current, every other day. The mice that were fed medium chain fatty acids continually performed better then the others and displayed a much higher physical endurance.[2] These studies in mice provide us with evidence that medium chain fatty acids increase metabolism and promote the loss of fat while providing a burst of energy that increases physical endurance. Yes, this boost in energy means you feel less lethargic, and it can help you feel less tired as you perform daily activities.

Coconut Oil Decreases Body Fat

Numerous studies have shown that coconut oil clearly has an effect on men and women very analogous to what has been demonstrated in other mammalian animal models: it increases metabolism and decreases overall body fat. For example, healthy men and women were administered either medium chain fatty acids or long chain fatty acids in addition to a diet similar in fat, protein, and carbohydrates for 12 weeks. Throughout the 12 weeks, individuals that took medium chain fatty acids had significantly less body weight and, specifically, body fat[3].

It Gets Even Better!

Not only do you store less body fat, studies have shown that medium chain fatty acids also increase the oxidation of long chain fatty acids that are already in your body, tucked away in your love handles!  So not only does it prevent weight gain, it aids in weight loss.[4] Similar to the animal studies, medium chain fatty acids also boost energy production in humans by speeding up metabolism.[5] Finally, for those with cholesterol problems, this study found that people with high triglyceride levels who were given medium chain fatty acids for eight weeks had a 14.5%  decrease in their triglyceride levels! [6]

Bottom line: for those of you that have completely lost focus:

1.    Coconut oil, which is a medium chain fatty acid, is metabolized by a different process than long chain fatty acids, this process expedites use as energy instead of storage.

2.   Because the body has to preferentially burn the fat off, it ramps up the metabolism by increasing thermogenesis.

3.   This ramping up of the metabolism then proceeds to not only burn off coconut oil, but long chain fatty acids pre-existing the consumption of coconut oil.

4.   These effects have been demonstrated both in animal studies, and more importantly, human studies as well.

 


[1] (Lipids 22 (6): 442-444).
[2] (Journal of Nutrition 125 (3):531-9)
[3] (The Journal of Nutrition 131 (11): 2853-2859)
[4] (International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 24 (9): 1158-1166)
[5] (Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental 38 (7): 641-648)

[6] (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 63 (7): 879-886).

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