Call it ridiculous, but its true: we l-o-v-e coconut oil. How easy it is to be enchanted by its tropical goodness- the alluring aroma and subtly sweet flavor that leave you closing your eyes and sighing deeply before zealously digging your spoon into the jar and scooping it out into a pan. If you’ve ever experimented with adding coconut oil into your diet you will likely recognize this captivating experience, as well as the sense of sustained energy, balance and vitality that this versatile oil can bring. Bolstering numerous health benefits, the appeal to coconut oil goes far beyond mere partiality and taste. But why is this? Let’s take a look at some of the science behind coconut oil, and the specific qualities that make it so healthy. This way, the next time someone raises a skeptical brow as you enthusiastically gobble up a dollop or slather the oil all over your skin, you will be equipped with some stellar healthy fat facts to back up your coco-passion.
Crazy for Coconut Oil
Virgin coconut oil is the rising superstar of the “healthy fats revolution”- and for good reason. Although wrongfully maligned due to common misunderstandings about saturated fats, coconut oil is finally being recognized as a truly “functional food” with dynamic nutritional and medicinal implications- what traditional cultures have always known. On popular television shows and in magazine features, you will notice murmurs about its miraculous potential to boost metabolism, heal acne and improve heart health. One of the major factors underlying these distinctive traits is the unique fatty acid content that coconut oil has, which sets it apart from other conventional dietary oils.
The Fatty Acid Breakdown
All of the fats and oils that we eat are composed of molecules called fatty acids. Biochemically, fatty acids are composed of a chain of carbon atoms connected to one another by chemical bonds. When three fatty acids are combined with a glycerol molecule, a triglyceride is formed. Triglycerides are the basic structural components of fats and oils. The characteristics of a dietary fat, including how it looks, how solid it is and how it functions in the body, are determined by the type of fatty acids in the triglycerides that make it up. There are generally two methods for classifying these fatty acids: saturation and size.
You are probably familiar with the concept of saturation. After all, on every nutrition label smacked onto packaged foods nowadays you will find a bolded percentile denoting the saturated fat content. Saturated fatty acids are naturally occurring in animal fat (lard, tallow, chicken fat, goose and duck fat, and dairy products like butter and ghee) as well as tropical oils like virgin coconut oil and palm oil. Once defamed, there are actually many health benefits to including high quality saturated fats in the diet. Unsaturated fats are more common in nuts, vegetable oils and fish. From a chemical standpoint, saturation refers to the number of hydrogen atoms linked onto the carbons that make up a fatty acid chain. Physically, this determines the general stability and solidity of the oil.
While saturation is an important aspect in determining the way that a fat or oil acts in the body, there is another lesser-discussed factor to take into consideration. This second method of classification is the molecular size or the length of the carbon chain within the fatty acid. There are short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) and long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs). Our bodies metabolize fats based on their size. Most of the fats in our diet, whether saturated or unsaturated, from plant or animal sources, are composed of long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs). Coconut oil is unique because it composed primarily of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs). While butter and palm oil also contain some MCFAs, coconut oil overwhelmingly has the most.
Table based on Fatty Acid Composition of Various Fats and Oils By Dr. Bruce Fife
Benefits of Medium Chain Fatty Acids
As with many things, consuming a robust variety of healthy fats in the diet is generally beneficial. Yet there are some notable benefits to MCFAs that are worth mentioning. Fats made up of medium chain fatty acids are more easily digested than their larger counterparts. They are more soluble in water and are almost completely digested by the time they leave the stomach. In fact, unlike other fats, triglycerides made up of MCFAs do not even require pancreatic enzymes or bile to be broken down. When they reach the small intestine they are thus immediately absorbed into the portal vein and sent to the liver, where they are used preferentially as a source of fuel. Thus they provide the body with quick and easy energy, while requiring little effort from digestive and hormonal systems. This characteristic yields many therapeutic effects in the body. The MCFAs in coconut oil have been shown to:
The energy pathway of MCFAs is so efficient that several studies have been done exploring their use for enhancing endurance and athletic performance. Although effects have been mild compared with drugs, researchers have discovered that a single meal containing MCFAs increases metabolism for up to 24 hours.
Because coconut oil is so gentle on digestive and enzymatic systems, it also tends to enhance the absorption of other nutrients including minerals like magnesium and calcium, some B vitamins, fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K) and amino acids. Studies have demonstrated a marked improvement in vitamin B deficiencies and calcium absorption when coconut oil is added into the diet. This is not because the oil necessarily contains these nutrients, but rather that it bolsters the amounts that are being assimilated from existing dietary sources.
Kick-Start the Thyroid Gland
Experts estimate that up to 40% of the population struggles with low thyroid function. Because the thyroid manages metabolism, a sub optimally functioning thyroid causes wide ranging symptoms including weight gain, impaired immune function, generalized fatigue, low sex drive, slow healing, cold intolerance etc. Because coconut oil can boost metabolism, it has a stimulatory effect on the thyroid. In certain cases, the thyroid then recovers the potential to return to normal if it receives the proper nutrition.
Heal and Repair Skin
Many people have reported benefits from applying coconut oil to the skin. Applied topically MCFAs are absorbed into cells and converted into energy, stimulating repair of blemishes and irritation. The best way to understand these effects is to try it! Make a homemade whipped coconut oil lotion- you will likely be amazed by the effects!
Act as an Antimicrobial
Lauric acid is one of the specific MCFAs in coconut oil. Making up almost 57% of the oil, it is a powerful substance that is unique for its strong antimicrobial effect. When lauric acid is absorbed into the body it is broken into free fatty acids and monoglycerides. The monoglycerides have the ability to permeate certain the lipid-encased pathogens, destabilizing their membranes and causing them to disintegrate and die off. Coconut oil has been found in a number of studies to be an effective adjunct treatment for infections caused by specific bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. It does not destroy all microorganisms as do broad spectrum antibiotics- but is rather highly selective so that healthy natural flora can continue to flourish in its presence.
So, from all this scientific garble, we can confirm what the taste buds and body tell us: coconut oil is GOOD for you! This is something that traditional cultures in the tropics have intuitively known for generations. Although as a guiding principle it is best to eat local and with the seasons- there are certain unique qualities to coconut oil that make it highly valuable in a modern diet, no matter where you live. To maximize the nutrient profile of your coconut oil, be sure to select one that is organic, extra virgin and cold pressed, as many of the synergistic nutrients are denatured by heat and other harsh processing methods.
Coconut Cures by Dr. Bruce Fife
The Coconut Oil Miracle by Dr. Bruce Fife
Eat Fat, Lose Fat by Dr. Mary Enig and Sally Fallon