Articles, Nutrition

I’ve got a lovely bunch of… Coconut oil…

Coconut oil – it’s all the buzz right? Everyone is always saying how good it is…  there are articles all over the web

about it being a super food… but it’s a saturated fat… so how can that be? Is it really that good for you? Is it actually super? I thought I’d do a little investigation and see…

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But saturated fats are evil…

Coconut oil is a saturated fat – which in general we’ve been told we need to avoid right? In fact coconut oil is one of the richest sources of saturated fats, with almost 90% of the fatty acids in it being saturated. But recent studies have actually suggested that saturated fats aren’t as bad as they were once thought to be – a study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition which involved over 11,000 participants found no significant link between increased consumption of saturated fats and heart disease. More research is needed but that’s a good start. So you don’t need to be quite as scared of saturated fats as we once were.

At any rate coconut oil specifically is a pretty special kind of saturated fat because it contains medium chain triglycerides. Most fatty acids in foods high in saturated fats like cheese or steak etc are long-chain fatty acids. The medium-chain fatty acids are metabolised differently to long-chain ones. They are removed from the digestive tract and processed by the liver and used as a quick energy source, or converted into ketone bodies. This means there is less chance for them to be stored as fat in the body and are a great energy boost. There is also evidence that these ketone bodies may help in the treatment of epilepsy and Alzheimer’s (more on that later).

Anthropological studies of some populations of people who consume high quantities of coconut and coconut fat have found little or no evidence of heart disease and strokes e.g. South Pacific communities such as the Tokelauans and Kitavans (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and Journal of International Medicine). These populations eat over 60% of their calories from coconuts and are the biggest consumers of saturated fats in the world, yet show very low rates of cardiovascular disease. That is further evidence that coconut oil isn’t all bad.

Energy Boost…

Medium-chain fatty acids are not only metabolised differently but can actually impact positively on energy expenditure. Studies have shown that medium-chain triglycerides from coconut oil can increase energy expenditure compared to the same amount of calories from long-chain fatty acids (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). In one other study (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition) just 15 – 30g of medium-chain triglycerides per day increased overall energy expenditure by 5%.

Anti-bacterial…

Fifty percent of the fatty acids in coconut oil is a fatty acid called Lauric Acid. This gets broken down in to a monoglyceride called monolaurin. Both lauric acid and monolaurin can kill bacteria, viruses and fungi (journal of Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy) and studies have shown in particular that they can kill Staphlococcus Aureus (a very serious pathogen for humans – Journal of Bacteriology) and Candida Albicans – a common source of yeast infections in humans (Journal of Medicinal Food). There’s also some evidence that they can help in the treatment of acne (Journal of Investigative Dermatology)– but so far these are only in-vitro experiments so more research is needed, so don’t go coating your face in it just yet!

Cholesterol…

Lauric acid does however increase the levels of cholesterol in the blood more than any other fatty acid.. oh oh… that doesn’t sound good though right?

Well luckily most of the increase is in high-density lipoprotein (HDL or the “good” blood cholesterol”) – which is what we want.  HDL’s are good because they remove excess cholesterol from the tissues and transport it to the liver. Here it’s converted in to bile salts which are then used by the digestive system to break down fats. LDL’s do the opposite – they transport cholesterol to tissues to be used to create cell membranes etc which is also great, until there are more LDL’s than the tissues need… which is when they start to dump cholesterol in the arteries resulting in reduced build up of fat in the artery walls. So HDL’s can prevent and even reduce atherosclerosis which means less risk of heart disease, strokes and other vascular diseases. Whoop whoop! As a result lauric acid has been characterised as having “a more favourable effect on total HDL cholesterol than any other fatty acid, either saturated or unsaturated” (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). Much more research needs to be done but it’s certainly promising.

Feeling hungry?

Studies have also shown that coconut oil may reduce hunger, due to the medium-chain fatty acids it contains and the way they are metabolised (Journal of Obesity). Another study found that those eating more medium-chain fatty acids ate fewer calories overall each day, and those eating them for breakfast ate less at lunch (International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders and American Journal of Clinical Nutrition). These studies were short and with limited participants but if the effect were to last over the long term then it could have a significant influence on body weight and managing weight gain. So pop a little coconut oil in your morning smoothie to help curb those cravings.

Insides out…

It’s not just good for your insides, it’s good for your outsides too! It’s proven to help moisturise and increase the lipid content of dry skin (Journal of Dermatitis). It can also protect hair and skin from damage from the sun’s UV rays – blocking about 20% of the UV (Journal of Cosmetic Science). So do look out for skin and hair products which contain coconut oil. There’s also evidence that it can help prevent bad breath and improve dental health if used like a mouthwash (Indian Journal of Dental Research). Although swishing out your mouth with coconut oil doesn’t sound very pleasant, it could be used in addition to normal dental care routines.

coconut-oil

Epilepsy and Alzheimer’s…

As I mentioned earlier, the ketone bodies produced from eating coconut oil might help in treating epilepsy and Alzheimer’s. For those with drug-resistant epilepsy a very low carbohydrate, high fat diet is often prescribed. This leads to high concentrations of ketone bodies in the blood which is linked to a vastly reduced rate of seizures in these patients. Because the fatty acids in coconut oil are rapidly turned into ketone bodies it is often used in such cases (Journal of Nutrition, and Journal of Epilepsia).

Alzheimer’s is a disease of the brain in which there appears to be a reduced ability for certain parts of the brain to use glucose for energy. There has been speculation that ketones might be able to be used as an alternative energy source for these malfunctioning brain cells, therefore reducing the symptoms (BMC Neuroscience). A study conducted in 2006 (Neurobiology of Ageing)  showed that consumption of medium-chain triglycerides immediately improved brain function in patients with milder forms of Alzheimer’s. Other studies have supported these findings and there are many studies now looking in to medium-chain triglycerides as potential treatments for Alzheimer’s disease (Nutrition and Metabolism, and Neurotherapeutics).

Waist shrinkage…

So coconut oil sounds pretty awesome so far right? but guess what – it gets better!

The fact that coconut oil can reduce appetite and increase fat burning means it can also help you lose weight. Specifically it seems like it may be effective at helping to reduce abdominal fat – fat which lodges in the abdominal cavity and around the internal organs. Waist circumference has been used as a good general marker for the amount of fat in the abdominal cavity. Accumulation of this type of fat has been linked to heart disease and strokes.  A study in the journal Lipids studied obese women who had a predominance of fat in the abdomen. This was a blind study – half the group were given a placebo of bean oil, the other half were given 30ml of coconut oil a day, they all followed the same diet and walked 50 mins a day. All the participants lost weight and BMI over the 12 week study, but those taking the coconut oil showed a significantly larger reduction in weight and, specifically, their waist circumference dropped far more than the other group. In addition, those taking coconut oil showed reduced levels of blood cholesterol as well.  A similar study on men, found a reduction of an inch in waist circumference after only 4 weeks of supplementing with coconut oil (30ml per day) (ISRN Pharmacology). Only an inch I hear you cry? Well yes but… this was with no change in exercise or restriction of calories… just the addition of coconut oil!

Now don’t get too excited and think that this means you can skip your gym session, stuff your face with chocolate and have a spoonful of coconut oil and your waist will disappear… sadly that’s not the case. What this means is that it would be a great idea to switch your current cooking oil to coconut oil, or pop a little in your pre-workout shake  and continue with your workouts and sensible eating, and you will be simply boosting your efforts.

Super duper miracle food… or…

After reading all that, you could be forgiven for thinking – well Nancy you’ve just confirmed that coconut oil is indeed the super duper miracle food we’ve all read about on the internet… and well yes it is pretty cool… but it’s not perfect. When it comes to essential fatty acids coconut oil is pretty rubbish. It contains only small amounts of linoleic acid (omega-6) and zero linolenic acids (omega 3) – which we need! Of course no oil is perfect – olive oil also has little omega-3’s and is unstable at even moderate cooking temperatures, rapeseed (canola) oil is a partially oxidised oil (which means it’s rancid) which is linked to inflammation in the body. Palm oil isn’t great either – it’s a great vitamin A and other antioxidant source (but only in it’s natural unprocessed form), but it’s a highly saturated fat and is linked to insulin resistance and heart disease, and it’s production destroys thousands  of acres of rainforest every year – so that’s not good…

So what does this mean? It means that coconut oil is NOT a superfood, but it’s also not terrible either. It’s a great thing to include as part of a varied diet. If you’re going to use it go for the Virgin Coconut oil and have a teaspoon in your shake, use it to make some yummy brownies, use it when you do a stir fry etc.. but if you’re having a salad then use a little olive or macadamia oil, throw some nuts in or add some flax seed or avocado. And don’t just shove spoonfuls of coconut oil in because you think it will do you good – it’s still calories! So the take home message it – mix it up. Variety is the spice of life!

Nancy 🙂

xx

virgin-coconut-oil

 

(This article was originally published on pureformfitness.co.uk)

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