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 as an Ayurvedic medicine 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.
A Functional Food
In Ayurveda, the coconut is considered a “functional food,” meaning that beyond its many useful vitamins and nutrients, the coconut also functions as a medicine. Namely, the oil of the coconut was revered by many Asian cultures as a “cure-all.”
But in the west, with the discovery of cholesterol and its link to heart disease, 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 are 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.
In fact, 98 to 100 percent 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 cardio-vascular 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 of 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 two 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 balances 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.
Though the oil of the coconut is the most medicinal form according to the studies cited in this article, check out these different ways of reaping some everyday benefits.
Hope for Alzheimer’s Disease
Some of the most exciting research on coconut oil was done by Kieran Clarke of Oxford University and explores the benefits of coconut oil on Alzheimer’s disease.
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. In Alzheimer’s, the brain becomes somewhat insulin resistant in that it cannot get its energy from sugar. Ketones provide an alternate source of fuel for the brain to use. More information is available in a new book, Alzheimer’s Disease: What If There Was A Cure?
Dr. Beverly Teter, a lipid biochemist and researcher, says that the benefits they are seeing with coconut oil on Alzheimer’s could potentially be applied to conditions such as Parkinson’s disease, ALS, epilepsy, dementia and even schizophrenia and autism.
Nearly 50 percent 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 fights microorganisms including bacteria, yeast, fungi and viruses. It also destroys the lipid membrane of such enveloped viruses as HIV, measles, Herpes simplex virus (HSV-1), influenza and cytomegalovirus (CMV).
Lauric acid is a main component of human breast milk and helps protect children from illness during infancy.
Capric and Caprylic acid, which make up another 7 percent of coconut oil fat content, also stimulate anti-bacterial and anti-viral activity.
Still Worried about Cholesterol?
Dr. Beverly Teter (above), also points out that while for years coconut oil was criticized for raising cholesterol, scientists have now learned that coconut oil actually lowers the LDL’s, or bad cholesterol, and raises the HDL’s, or good cholesterol.
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 now over 10,000 studies done on coconut oil, making it outdated now to hold on to the myth of coconut oil as an “evil” saturated fat.
For a truly impressive list of coconut oil benefits, visit here.
All references for this article can be found there.
Editor: Brianna Bemel