Whether or not you're new to the coconut oil craze, or you've been soaking your skin with it for years, there is no doubt you've made the right choice by hopping onboard. Despite the fact that this natural, drupe-based oil received unwarranted flak for a number of years for being a saturated fat, the jury is out... and we were wrong. And although it lacks a few extra double bonds, this oil has many - if not more - health benefits than a number of the other unsaturated vegetable oils that sit in most pantries today. But the best part… theres evidence to prove it. So without further ado, heres why…
first things first… a lesson on fatty acids
Generally speaking, fatty acids are long molecules found in both vegetable and animal products that are used by the body to create lubrication for our joints, insulation for our nerves, protective cushioning for our organs, and ultimately make up the outer membrane of every single cell in our body. By now, I'm sure you've begun to appreciate their importance. The key to remember about any fat is the types, quantities, and lengths of the fatty acids it contains. To explain, there are both saturated fatty acids (SFA), which lack double bonds (like coconut oil) and are therefore solid at room temperature, and unsaturated fatty acids, which contain double bonds (like our omega oils) and are liquid at room temperature. For a long time, if was believed that saturated fats were bad for our health, but that myth is debunked below. In the food industry, there exists a third form known as hydrogenated fatty acids, which basically means the unsaturated fat has been given a few extra hydrogen atoms to make it more stable at room temperature. However, in doing so, the break down of this product creates trans fats, which are not found in nature and are unrecognizable to our bodies, therefore ending up places they shouldn't - like the walls of our arteries.
the myth about saturated fat
A meta-analysis done by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition concluded that we've had it wrong for years - saturated fats are evidently harmless, and there is "no significant evidence that dietary saturated fat is associated with increased risk of Coronary Heart Disease or Cardiovascular Disease". Furthermore, another study from the AJCN showed that replacing SFA with unsaturated fatty acids had no effect on the fluidity or stiffness of arterial walls. Now this doesn't mean that everyone at risk for heart disease should go liberally divulging on animals fats and cheese, as there is an importance to the type of saturated fat consumed, and of course in moderation. That importance is in it's length. Coconut oil is set apart from other fatty acids because it is made up predominantly (~70%) of medium-chain fatty acids, which are absorbed directly into the digestive tract and sent straight to the liver, and unlike animal and dairy products, they do not require bile salts for breakdown. Coconut oil is therefore a direct source of energy - remember this for later. To top it all off, a saturated fat like coconut oil tolerates high temperatures much better than most unsaturated fats like corn, sunflower, or olive oil, and that is due to it's higher smoke point. The smoke point of an oil is the temperature at which the oil begins to break apart, producing byproducts and free radicals that can be dangerous to the body. Most unrefined oils on the shelves (depending on their quality) have a smoke point ranging from 250 - 320°F, whereas coconut oil ranges upwards of 350°F. Therefore, the use of coconut oil decreases the risk of free radical damage from cooking.
why we should all ditch the carbs for fat
While every cell in the body burns glucose (the breakdown product of all carbohydrates), the heart and skeletal muscle in particular prefer fatty acids, as it is a greater source of energy production, and doesn't require insulin to do so. This point is very important, as so much of the population today experiences insulin resistance (the first step to type II diabetes) due to the overburden of insulin our body experiences from all the sugar we consume. FUN FACT: 4 g of sugar on a food label = 1 tsp of white sugar… think about it next time you read the side of a box. Moreover, the foods we eat and the sources they come from have effects on the way in which our body handles our hormones. Firstly, high amounts of sugar increases insulin, which counters cortisol, leading to more fat storage in the abdomen and less breakdown. Now for the importance of those medium-chain fatty acids I mentioned. One study shows that the thermic effects of medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil are greater than long-chain fatty acids of equal calorie content, suggesting an important take home message: a calorie is not a calorie. There isfurther evidence to suggest that increasing medium-chain fatty acids in the diet can increase your body's energy expenditure by 5%, which averages an extra 120 calories burnt per day. The ketone bodies that are produced from coconut oil's metabolism is also shown to have appetite reducing effects, meaning less calories consumed throughout the day. So yes, it is too good to be true … sugar = fat storage, and fat = weight loss.
other fabulous facts about coconut oil
FOR YOUR SKIN and HAIR: it has an SPF of 10 (blocking ~20% of the suns rays), making it not only incredibly hydrating to the skin and hair, but protective. Furthermore, coconut oil is made up of ~ 60% lauric acid, a natural antiviral, antibacterial, and antifungal, making it a great topical treatment for infected wounds or fungal infections like tinea. Don't forget, it works the same way internally, for preventing things like candida.
FOR YOUR BRAIN: we all know fatty acids are essential for brain function and development, but medium-chain fatty acids specifically are turned into ketones by the body, which some studies have shown to have therapeutic effects in conditions such as epilepsy and Alzheimer's. Something to consider...
FOR YOUR CHOLESTEROL: studies show coconut oil increases levels of HDL (the "good" cholesterol) and lowers oxidative damage of LDL (the type that clogs our arteries when exposed to oxidative damage).
FOR YOUR DIGESTION: because it requires no energy for breakdown or transportation across the intestines, people who suffer from IBS or Crohn's may benefit from the ease of coconut oil's absorption. More remarkably, those who suffer from gallstones or bile duct conditions will not be affects by coconut oil, as this fat requires no bile salts for emulsification. Hooray!
FOR YOUR HEALTH: fat soluble substances, like vitamin A, D, E, and K, and minerals like calcium are all more readably absorbed when taken with coconut oil. Your mood, your bones, and your immune system will love you for it.
REMEMBER: like any oil, coconut oil varies in quality. When choosing a brand, go for UNREFINED and VIRGIN forms (meanly those lovely medium-chain fatty acids haven't been destroyed in the making). My favourite so far - Carrington Farm's cold-pressed, organic coconut oil, found at Costco for a fantastic price (~17$ for a tub that will last you months).