In history and in many cultures, the coconut has had many uses including baskets, hydration, and even charcoal from its outer shell. In our modern society we most commonly find the coconut in the form of coconut oil in the cooking oil section of the grocery store. We often commonly find it in skincare products and in supplements. The coconut and it’s oil is very beneficial for our health.
It’s a fat, that’s bad right?
Coconut oil is high in fatty acids that contain medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Even though it is high in saturated fat, the MCTs metabolize differently than long-chain fatty acids (LCTs). MCTs go straight to the liver and then get converted to be used as energy or into ketones. This allows a faster burn rate and raises the metabolic rate. MCTs have been found to raise HDL (good) cholesterol levels in the body. (I hate the good cholesterol/bad cholesterol talk – come to our heart health workshop to understand why.)
When dealing with an injury to the brain such as a concussion, a ketogenic diet helps to provide energy. There has also been some correlation between ketones and a decreased risk for memory problems associated with both the injury as well as neurodegenerative diseases. There are lot of people studying ketones as they pertain to the potential benefit in the treatment of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
How is coconut oil beneficial?
First off, this is possibly the best cooking oil we can use because of the health benefits of coconut oil. Incorporating more coconut oil to cook with is possibly one of the easiest, positive health changes you can make. But what are those benefits?
One major study found that MCTs improved learning, memory, and brain processing in people with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. In 2009 a study found MCTs could support exercise performance. Consuming food containing MCTs instead of LCTs for 2 weeks allowed recreational athletes to endure longer bouts of high-intensity exercise.
Contained in the flesh of the coconut are important minerals: iron, magnesium and potassium. Coconut oil itself contains iron and zinc, as well as a bit of vitamin E and K. The oil also contains plant sterols that mimic blood cholesterol and may help to block cholesterol absorption. Because MCTs are easily absorbed and digested and provide an incredible energy source, they can be and have been used for malnutrition and nutrient absorption disorders, such as chronic diarrhea, steatorrhea liver disease, and pancreatic disfunction.
Medium chain triglycerides that can be isolated from coconut can potentially reduce hunger, while helping the body metabolize fat. Studies, although small, have shown that those that consume more MCTs ate fewer calories per day. Think of MCTs as a fast-burning fat rather than one that we typically store. In addition, for those who hold on to large amounts of abdominal fat, there has been evidence to show a reduction body mass index and waist circumference with the intake of just 2 table spoons of coconut oil a day over 12 weeks. Other published reasons that MCTs are useful in weight loss have to do with the lower energy density they provide: 10% fewer calories than LCTs, they help satiate and create fullness and may help the body burn fat more efficiently. While there are studies to support this, some show no benefit, as we see often in nutrition. Given the lack of a strong correlation for a negative or harmful result, if used properly the worst-case scenario is that the weight loss effects are very minimal.
Medium-chain triglycerides can have many potential health benefits. When dosing, there is no perfect number. In studies, anywhere from 1-5 tablespoons or 15-74 mL daily have been ingested. There is no defined tolerable upper intake level; however, a maximum daily dose of 4-7 tablespoons or 60-100mL is suggested, according to Carol Rees Parrish, M.S., R.D., Series Editor, Nutrition Issues in Gastroenterology, series #160, February 2017. It is prudent to start small though.
Is it safe?
There are currently no reported adverse interactions with medications or other potentially serious side effects. One teaspoon of the oil is a perfect starting point. If you tolerate it, build up from there. Using the MCT in your diet is an easy way to include them. Drizzling it on veggies or making salad dressings with the oil is a simple way to start, in addition to just taking a tablespoon or two. Be cautious when dosing, since there is the potential for nausea, bloating, gas, vomiting, and an unsettled stomach if ingesting too much. The main drawback with standard MCTs as a cooking oil is that it has a low smoke point. You can get lauric-acid rich MCT oil to pan fry and sauté in to get an oil almost identical to coconut oil with a higher smoke point.
Because MCTs have no strong taste or smell, using in a salad dressing, over veggies, or even plain off a teaspoon, is very well tolerated. Using even just coconut oil can also be a good staple for your diet when not trying to reach therapeutic effects with straight MCT oil. It is always best to find a source of MCT or coconut oil that has a high quality to it.