Coconut Oil: A Gift from Heaven or Hell?


Coconut oil....gift from heaven...or hell?
Coconut oil….gift from heaven…or hell?

Fitness and nutrition trends are very much like fashion trends; in one minute, out the next.  Have you ever wondered why this is?  There are a couple of reasons for this.  First, the advice/trend may not have been all that great to begin with, so with time, it passes by.  Alternatively, us Americans have pretty short attention spans.  Even when we’re presented with something worthwhile and interesting, we grow tired of it, and quickly begin searching for the next latest and greatest thing. 

I think it goes without saying, to really make am impact on our health and weight, we’ve got to learn to discern the worthwhile bits of fitness and nutrition advice from the worthless.  Instead of following the rise and fall of each trend as they come along (and making no progress as a result), simply incorporate the good pieces of advice into your life.  Soon enough, these little bits of good advice will start adding up to some serious change in your body and health.  Now, we could sit here all day and still not get to every fitness or nutrition trend that’s been in the news lately.  But one such trend that’s been making a lot of waves  has to do with the health benefits of coconut oil. 

One school of thought purports the countless benefits of this tropical fat, while others claim it’s no different from butter or other oils; high in saturated fat, bad for your heart, bad for your waistline.  Is coconut oil really a flash in the pan trend that we should simply ignore, or are there some merits behind the claims of its proponents?  Let’s take a look…

Coconut Oil – The Good

To make an informed decision here, we’re going to first look at the positive health benefits of coconut oil.  First and foremost, you’ve got to understand the chemical make up of the fat found in coconut oil.  Fat falls into one of three categories; short-chain fatty acids, medium-chain fatty acids, and long-chain fatty acids.  Most of the fats we consume are long-chain fatty acids.  Coconut oil however, is made up of medium-chain fatty acids.  These types of fatty acids are more readily absorbed by the liver and converted to energy.  In other words, these fats are being used up before they have a chance to make themselves a permanent home on your gut, thighs, or butt.  So the next time someone implies coconut is bad for you because it’s high in saturated fat, you’ll know they’re making an unfair distinction, because the saturated fat in coconut isn’t the same kind found in other “unhealthy” high-saturated fat foods.

Along that same vein, the type of saturated fat found in coconut oil is largely lauric acid.  Lauric acid, in particular, increases good cholesterol (HDL), as well as bad cholesterol (LDL) but does not negatively affect the ratio between the two.  Moreover, lauric acid has been shown in studies to be something of a super substance.  That is, it possesses antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antiviral properties that could fight anything from HIV to acne.

There are no doubt plenty of negative studies detailing the negative health benefits coconut oil.  One thing you need to realize however, is these studies almost always use partially hydrogenated coconut oil.  This in turn removes many of the positive effects of pure coconut oil and replaces them with the things you want to avoid, like trans fats.

So how about those claims about coconut oil helping to reduce fat?  There have been several studies which seemingly back these claims.  Researchers in one particular study discovered that the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut actually increased metabolism, fat burning potential, and overall body fat in test subjects [1].  They concluded that the replacement of long-chain fatty acids with medium-chain fatty acids found in coconut oil will not cause additional fat accumulation, and on the contrary, may actually help speed up fat loss. 

Another study looking at the health benefits of coconut oil focused on the effects it has on weight gain.  Researchers concluded that the replacement of long-chain fatty acid sources with coconut oil may additionally “increase energy expenditure, may result in faster satiety and facilitate weight control when included in the diet as a replacement for fats containing LCT (long-chain fats)” [2]. 

The Kitava Study

Kitavans get 80% of their calories from the saturated fat found in coconuts...but have low levels of heart disease and stroke...what's up with that?
Kitavans get 80% of their calories from the saturated fat found in coconuts…but have low levels of heart disease and stroke…what’s up with that?

One particularly interesting study of note, has been dubbed “The Kitava Study”.  Researchers examined islanders living in Trobriand, which is a tiny island off the coast of Papua New Guinea.  The people on this island consume roughly 80% of their daily calories through coconuts and coconut oil.  Despite the high saturated fat content of these food products, researchers found very low levels of heart disease and stroke [3].  These two conditions are major killers of Americans, and are often associated with a diet high in saturated fats.  But again, before we conclude all saturated fat is bad, we must remember the saturated fats almost all Americans consume on a daily basis are long-chain.  There is clearly a difference between long and medium chain fatty acids and their effects on our health.

Of course, it would be foolish to look at the Kitava Study and automatically assume the health benefits of coconut oil were soley responsible for saving these islanders from heart disease.  Their diets were rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as well.  Additionally, they lived a much different life than the typical Westerner.  Their days were often filled with physical labor and/or active living.  We know by now that lots of exercise will help prevent heart disease and stroke as well. 

Coconut Oil – The Bad

Now before you grab a jar of coconut oil and start scarfing it down like a tub of ice cream, we’ve got to point out the (hopefully) obvious here.  First off, a handful of studies promoting the health benefits of something are far from conclusive.  It takes years of research for the scientific community to make a definite and united claim about something.  I think the initial studies are pointing in the positive direction, but that doesn’t mean they should be taken as undeniable proof that coconut oil is indeed this wonderful superfood. 

Now, if you’re interested in the weight loss benefits tied to coconut oil, I can’t blame you.  There seems to be some really compelling stuff going on with coconut oil and it’s effects on metabolism and weight loss.  That said, coconut oil is still very high in calories.  As we know, calories coming in have to go somewhere.  While the type of calories found in coconut oil are quickly burned off, and may even raise metabolism, that doesn’t mean you can’t over do it.  Consuming hundreds of additional calories a day, regardless of how “healthy” they are, is going to catch up to you.  Just because something is healthy doesn’t mean it can’t cause you to gain weight.

The Health Benefits of Coconut Oil: The Verdict

In my humble opinion, I do believe there is a stark difference between long-chain fatty acids and medium-chain fatty acids.  I’ve read the studies, I’ve done my research, and this is the conclusion I’ve drawn.  Someone else may draw another conclusion, and that’s fine.  Personally, I’ve been substituting coconut oil for oils containing long-chain fatty acids for a while now.  I’ve experienced no unwanted weight gain nor have I had any problems with my blood cholesterol levels.  I’m not going to say coconut oil is the sole reason I’m able to maintain my low body fat percentage and quick metabolism, but I do believe it plays a contributing role.  At the end of the day, if you’re considering the inclusion of coconut oil into your diet, I would say to play it smart and simply use it as a substitute for other fats.  Instead of frying in olive oil, opt for coconut oil.  Instead of baking with butter, try coconut oil.  You get the idea.

I believe in the slow and steady approach to most things health and fitness related.  If you slowly and steadily incorporate coconut oil into your diet, I think you’ll be pretty happy with the health benefits you receive.  Remember, the idea here isn’t to go overboard with your coconut oil consumption, but to replace less healthy fat choices with a healthier choice.  And before you go running off and buying the first tub of coconut oil you can find, be sure that it’s virgin coconut oil and not the highly processed kind full of dread trans fats. 

Any questions, comments, or concerns, feel free to leave a comment below and we’ll happily get back to you!

 

[1]: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12975635

[2]: http://jn.nutrition.org/content/132/3/329.full

[3]: http://www.staffanlindeberg.com/TheKitavaStudy.html

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