18 May 2010

Coconut Oil: A saturated fat than can help you get healthy?

Coconut oil has had a bad rap over the years. A few decades ago, a scientist fed some hydrogenated coconut oil to some test-rodents, and they got sick! Well, the thing is, this hydrogenated oil (read: trans-fat!) was actually completely devoid of any necessary fatty-acids. That's like blaming scurvy on the ale on a ship: the sickness wasn't coming from what they were eating, but what they weren't!

Now, there are pros and cons to everything in the food world. "Saturated fat" is probably the dirtiest phrase in a food dictionary! Had a heart attack? Cut back on the saturated fats! But consider this: saturated fat (like many other nutrients in life) has its uses. Our bodies use saturated fats to build cell walls. In fact, without enough saturated fats, your body can't function properly.

OK, why in the world have I started in on saturated fats? This post is supposed to be about coconut oil! Well, coconut oil is approximately 90% saturated fat. You read that right, 90%. So you may wonder how I can be recommending you use a fat that, by its very composition, is everything that is evil in the world of (if I may borrow a phrase from KitchenKop) "politically correct" food.

So let's look a little more closely:

Weighing in


  • Coconut oil is indeed a saturated fat. However, it is a "medium-chain" fat. What does this mean? Well, fats come in 3 sizes: short, medium, and long. The short and medium ones can actually travel through your bloodstream, they're deposited straight into your liver, and used up first for energy, much in the same way as a carbohydrate. So this medium chain fat, coconut oil, is actually a quick-burning source of energy. Many athletes use shorter chain fats for working out, because unlike carbs, they don't have the spike-and-crash effect on your blood sugar 
  • Coconut oil is a powerful antimicrobial and antioxidant. It's been shown effective against many types of bacteria and viruses (it's even been shown to slow the progression of HIV, due to Lauric acid).
  • There are fewer calories in coconut oil than most other fats. For instance, olive oil has 883 Calories per 100 grams; coconut oil has only 862, a 2% decrease! (I'm not saying it's "low fat," just "lower")
  • It's delicious! 
  • It's got a higher smoke point than many other natural oils (which means it can withstand higher temperatures).


With any argument I make, to be fair to both sides. In an attempt to be unbiased, I went looking for the skeletons in coconut oil's closet. So I searched... and searched. The only common disdain held for coconut oil is its high saturated fat content. This was enough to convince most people not to touch it with a 10-foot pole. The reasoning used almost exclusively: "it's almost pure saturated fat, which raises cholesterol."

Ok, that sounds bad, let's look a little deeper. I've learned in my searching over the past year or so that statements like that are far too all-encompassing, and there is usually more to the story. I wanted to know, has anyone tested this; do we know that coconut oil raises cholesterol, or are we making assumptions? You know what happens when you assume...  We've gone on for years believing saturated fats are the enemy, causing heart disease left and right. However, recently, we've realized all those trans-fats (which are UNSATURATED fats, folks) are the real problem. 


A lot of people made claims on both sides, but I wanted an honest-to-goodness clinical study, one that involves actual people (since many effects of coconut oil in rats or mice don't translate to humans with practical experience). And I found this study from Brazil, comparing the effects of coconut oil to soy bean oil on obese women and their waistlines. Both groups saw a reduction in their BMI, likely due to the fact that their diets were controlled by the study, and they were required to add light exercise to their daily routine. But only the women taking the coconut oil had smaller waists at the end of the study (something the soy bean oil group did not). In addition, their ratio of good cholesterol to bad cholesterol was better. The soy group actually saw an overall increase in cholesterol, including a decrease in the good stuff. 

The posted abstract doesn't say if the coconut oil groups overall cholesterol went up or down, but given the higher percentage of HDLs, this means their cholesterol as a whole is healthier. Basically, "bad" cholesterol, or LDL, is how your liver packages up cholesterol in your body to send it off to where it needs to be. If too many LDLs are around, they can stick together, and become the beginning of plaque in your arteries, leading to hardening. What HDL ("good" cholesterol) does is it acts like Scrubbing Bubbles for your arteries, scouring along and picking up the excess cholesterol in your blood, effectively cleaning out what your LDLs deposit.

The Verdict

Drum-roll please...

So, my verdict: coconut oil's benefits seem to outweigh the risks. I'm not condoning taking it as a supplement if you have pre-existing cholesterol problems, but I can't see the harm in replacing some of your everyday cooking fat with this oil. It's lower calorie, and has been shown to reduce abdominal fat better than other fats. And it tastes great in stir-frys.


If you decide to supplement with this oil, you should consult your doctor or nutritionist first. My nutritionist told me about a teaspoon a day should be sufficient for the full anti-bacterial effects. Two notes though: one, if you do decide to take it as a supplement, apparently the effects are cumulative, so try not to miss a day (or 5...); and two, take it easy when you start. Given that your body may need a transitional period, don't' try taking 2, 3, 4 teaspoons a day no matter what you see online, as it can cause some unpleasant intestinal side effects!

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