The local people of Kerala, on the southwestern coast of India, claim that the earth’s very first coconut tree came from their soil. They called it the “tree of life” because every part of the tree – the root, the fruit, the leaves, the trunk – is utilized in a multitude of ways to support the health and survival of Kerala’s indigenous people.
Today, I want to discuss the health benefits of coconut oil, which has been prized in Ayurveda for thousands of years. Though ostracized in recent decades due to its bad-for-you saturated fat, science is finally convincing skeptical researchers that this ancient oil has unique and essential properties for optimal health.
Do the tremendous benefits of coconut oil have to come at the price of significant risks to heart health? Read on as I explore the science behind this question.
In Ayurveda, the coconut is considered a “functional food,” meaning that beyond its many useful vitamins and nutrients, the coconut also functions to restore optimal health. The oil of the coconut was revered around the world as a concentrate of what many consider to be the perfect food.
But in the west, with the discovery of cholesterol and its link to heart health, all saturated fats (solid at room temperature) were deemed bad. Thus, coconut oil received a bad reputation, even though it has unique health giving properties that rival the Omega 3’s.
So, how can something with such high saturated fat content be good for you?
Saturated Fats 101
All fats are made up of fatty acids. The size of each fatty acid depends on how many carbon atoms with attached hydrogen atoms are linked together. Some are made up of a short chain of fatty acids (SCFA), others of a medium chain of fatty acids (MCFA) and others still of long chain fatty acids (LCFA).
The vast majority of fats and oils, whether they are saturated or unsaturated (liquid at room temperature), whether they are from a plant or animal source, are LCFA’s.
In fact, 98 to 100% of all fatty acids consumed are of the long chain fatty acid variety.
And as it turns out, it is the saturated LCFAs that present the health risks associated with “bad fats”, not the MCFA or SCFA saturated fats. In other words, not all saturated fats are bad!
What Makes Saturated LCFA’s so Toxic?
LCFA’s contained in oils such as corn, soy, sunflower, safflower and canola are difficult for the body to digest because of their size and the need for certain enzymes to break them down. As a result, they are easily stored as fat and not utilized or converted into energy.
Additionally, heating or cooking with LCFA’s damages the natural antioxidants inherent in these oils and makes them toxic to the body and a threat to the cardiovascular system, most notably by raising blood pressure and damaging arterial walls.
How is Coconut Oil Different?
You guessed it: coconut oil is composed predominately of the very rare medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCT).
Virgin coconut oil has the highest concentration of MCFA outside human breast milk.
Because of its saturated structure and smaller size compared to LCFA’s, it is extremely stable and resistant to oxidation with at least a 2 year shelf life. In fact, many experts agree that coconut is the “only” oil that should be used for cooking, as it is the most heat stable.
Eat Up – These Saturated Fats Are Good for You
The medium chain fatty acids in coconut oil are smaller and much more easily digested than LCFA’s. They are quickly broken down by the liver into energy so they don’t have to be stored as fat.
MCFA’s are readily available sources of energy that do not spike blood sugar or insulin levels. Studies show that coconut oil boosts metabolism, helps support weight loss and healthy thyroid function.
Consider this: farmers in the 1940’s tried adding coconut oil to their feed hoping to fatten up the cows. Instead, they became healthy and lean and resisted gaining any extra weight, so naturally they discontinued its use.
Some of the most exciting research on coconut oil was done by Kieran Clarke of Oxford University, on the benefits of coconut oil for healthy brain function and memory.
Coconut oil, being a MCFA, is broken down into the liver and delivers energy into the bloodstream as ketones – an energy supply derived from fats. The brain prefers sugar or glucose as its main energy supply, but studies show that it will use ketones as well if they are available. Ketones provide an alternate source of fuel for the brain to maintain optimal cognitive function.
Healthy Immune Response Against Foreign Micro-organisms
Nearly 50% of the fatty acid in natural coconut oil is in the form of lauric acid, which is a rare and very potent fatty acid. The lauric acid in coconut oil converts to the fatty acid monolaurin in the body. Monolaurin supports a healthy immune response against foreign microbes.
Lauric acid is a main component of human breast milk and helps support healthy immunity during infancy.
Capric and Caprylic acid, which make up another 7% of coconut oil fat content, also stimulate a healthy immune response.
Still Worried about Cholesterol?
Dr. Beverly Teter points out that while for years coconut oil was criticized for raising cholesterol, scientists have now learned that coconut oil actually supports overall cardiovascular health and normal cholesterol levels.
The Research Is In
It is not surprising that the nut from the tree of life would deliver such incredible health benefits. Still, some experts say they need to see more research before they can condone saturated fats as heart healthy. Well, the research is in. There are literally thousands of studies done on coconut oil, making it outdated to hold on to the myth of coconut oil as an evil saturated fat.
Below, I have listed some of the researched health benefits as listed on the Coconut Research Center web site.
Immune Support –
- Provides multifaceted support for the immune system.
- Supports a healthy immune response for foreign microbes.
Clean Energy and Nutrition –
- Provides a nutritional source of quick energy.
- Boosts energy and endurance, enhancing physical and athletic performance.
- Improves digestion and absorption of other nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.
- Is lower in calories than all other fats.
- Promotes healthy weight by increasing metabolic rate.
- Is utilized by the body to produce energy in preference to being stored as body fat like other dietary fats.
Blood Sugar Support –
- Improves insulin secretion and utilization of blood glucose.
- Relieves stress on pancreas and enzyme systems of the body.
- Regulates glucose metabolism.
Digestion and Absorption –
- Reduces problems associated with malabsorption of nutrients.
- Improves digestion and bowel function.
- Improves utilization of essential fatty acids and protects them from oxidation.
Resilient Skin, Hair, Bones and Teeth –
- Improves calcium and magnesium absorption and supports the development of strong bones and teeth.
- Supports healthy periodontal tissue.
- Supports the natural chemical balance of the skin.
- Softens skin and helps relieve dryness and flaking.
- Promotes healthy looking hair and complexion.
- Provides protection from ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
- Helps control dandruff.
Heart Healthy! –
- Is heart healthy; supports healthy levels of good and bad fats.
- Helps maintain a healthy circulatory system.
Supports Healthy Anti-Oxidant Activity –
- Does not deplete the body’s antioxidant reserves like other oils do.
- Does not form harmful by-products when heated to normal cooking temperature like other vegetable oils do.
General Health –
- Helps support healthy gallbladder function.
- Supports and aids immune system function.
- Helps support healthy energy levels.
- Supports thyroid function.
- Supports healthy weight naturally.
Brain Support –
- Supports healthy memory and recall.
- Supports healthy cognitive function and clarity.