Monday, June 06, 2011

Coconut Oil


Q. I am confused about coconut oil. I thought it was bad for you and now I see it everywhere in the health food store and health related magazines.


A. In the 1980's, the media went on a low fat frenzy - hydrogenated vegetable oils were said to be the cause behind the heart disease epidemic, later, specifically the SATURATED fats in hydrogenated oils were singled out and the industry made a change to the 'healthier' partially hydrogenated oils which created trans fatty acids, now thought to be a major contributor to obesity in North America.

Why did coconut oil get such a bad rap?
Many of the initial studies on coconut oil were conducted on partially hydrogenated coconut oils, meaning that the findings claiming health risks associated with their consumption (namely high cholesterol and obesity) may have had much more to do with the trans fat content (caused by the partial hydrogenation) than the coconut oil itself. In fact, some more recent studies are showing that coconut oil may increase HDL cholesterol, the 'good cholesterol', which we WANT at higher levels, while maintaining a low LDL ('bad') cholesterol level. The coconut oil you see in the health foods stores today is non-hydrogenated, virgin coconut oil and has 0 trans fats.

Medium chain fatty acids
We are now much more educated about the health risks associated with trans fats, and how some saturated fat in our diets can actually improve our overall health. We also know more about the specific fatty acids in coconut oil, namely lauric acid and capric acid, both medium chain fatty acids (MCFA's). MCFA's contain 6-10 carbons, compared to long chain fatty acids, which contain 10+. Medium chain fatty acids differ significantly from their longer chained counterparts and may be a more fat friendly, abundant and rapidly used and available source of energy. Another bonus to using MCFA's for energy is that, when compared to carbohydrates, MCFA's do not have a stimulatory effect on insulin levels. Studies are now showing that it may be useful in controlling weight gain and obesity. MCFA's have also been used widely in the treatment of malabsorption pathologies, such as pancreatitis, Crohn's, celiac's, and cystic fibrosis. MCFA's have shown a huge benefit over low fat diets in terms of maintaining adequate nutrition and weight. They have been found to aid in the digestion, absorption and transport of lipids. Similarly, there is some evidence to suggest the consumption of coconut oil may be effective for the treatment of gallstones or prevention of gallstone in individuals who are susceptible.

More health benefits
Lauric acid is converted to monolaurin in the body, a MCFA that is otherwise only naturally found in breast milk. And we now know the importance of the MCFA in general during the first few days and months of life, as they aid in the absorption of necessary minerals calcium and magnesium. Although it was initially reserved for use in the soap and cosmetic industry, Lauric acid has significant anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-protozoal functions within the body, as well. It has been shown to destroy lipid coated viruses, such as HIV, herpes, CMV, and influenza, as well as bacteria like heliobacter, and protozoa such as giardia. It has these effects by solubilizing the lipids and phospholipids in the envelope of the virus, causing disintegration. Some researchers have also suggested that monolaurin from lauric acid interferes with signal transduction between virus and bacteria, as well as interfering with virus assembly and maturation. Regardless of how it has these actions, the immune benefits of coconut oil (and specifically its MCFA content, including lauric acid) have been clearly demonstrated. Another great benefit of coconut oil is its ability to withstand high heats, while still retaining the health benefits of its fatty acids. It is one of the only oils that is 'safe' to fry with, if you must fry with oil.

Everything in moderation
Before I go any further, I want to stress that I am not advocating an all fat diet. As always, the key to a healthy diet is moderation. Almost any fat, in excessive amounts, can lead to a greater risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular events. No more than 30% of our caloric intake should come from fat, and of this 30%, only 10% should come from medium chain fatty acids. A diet containing only MCFA's is lacking in the essential fatty acids, including EPA and DHA, necessary to a variety of processes within the body. That being said, it is so important to understand the place that fats can and should have in a healthy diet, and why a 'low fat diet', unless essential to your specific health condition, may actually be leading to weight gain and disease.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it's all about moderation. Virgin or extra virgin coconut oil, when purchased from a reputable source and consumed in moderation has numerous health benefits AND it's delicious! Enjoy!

Coconut oil is naturally a solid at room temperature, and will turn to liquid if warm, anything over 75-76 degrees and the solid becomes a liquid. If this happens in your cupboard over the summer, do not worry, the product has not gone bad and it is still effective. It will form a solid again when it cools.

If you have existing liver problems or are suffering from diabetes, consult a healthcare practitioner before consuming coconut oil.

View all of our Q&A's with Dr. Jody

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