Coconut oil: healthy or not? Is virgin better?
Coconut oil: healthy, beneficial and better if virgin?
This week, we will swing back to our health topics and learn about fats: what’s good about them, what’s bad about them and what kinds of fat we should be eating. Additionally, we will talk about coconut oil, more specifically about virgin coconut oil. You may have noticed coconut oil has become all the rage in recent years. It has, however, been a controversial topic in the medical field and we will discuss why. Is coconut oil healthy or not? Before we embark on our journey discussing coconut oil, we first need to understand the basics of fat metabolism and utilization in our bodies.
So, what is the problem with fat anyway? In many western countries, why have we historically been told to limit fats and eat a diet heavy on carbohydrates? I say historically, because we are realizing that this type of diet based on bread, pasta and refined carbohydrates was not a good idea. It has led to many of the health epidemics we see today. This however, would need a separate blog entry by itself.
Fat: the basic stuff
Ok, so when we talk about fats we need to start by talking about the good and the bad. Saturated fat and monounsaturated fats. These types of fats are linked to coronary heart disease and death. Another type of fat, called unsaturated fat has been shown, when paired with a diet rich in whole grains, fruits, vegetables and omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids, to have a protective effect against heart disease.
So how does it work? How does fat cause heart disease? By a process called atherosclerosis. During this process, plaques form along the inner walls of your blood vessels. These plaques slowly occlude the vessel until the blood can no longer flow through. In the case of the coronary arteries, which supply blood to the heart, when occluded, blood and oxygen can’t flow to the heart. This results in a myocardial infarction (MI, aka heart attack).
When we talk about fats, we often talk about good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. We call the good cholesterol HDL (high density lipoprotein) and the bad LDL (low density lipoprotein). You basically want to keep the LDL cholesterol low and have a higher HDL cholesterol. This ratio protects against heart disease.
We associate saturated fat with higher LDL cholesterol. This, in turn, leads to plaque formation and propagation of atherosclerosis. A type of unsaturated fat, called trans-fat, also raises your bad cholesterol. This trans-fat, and oddly enough everyone agrees on this, is bad for you. Specifically, the artificial trans-fat that occurs via a human process that pumps hydrogen in to vegetable oils. Saturated fat, on the other hand, is a bit more controversial, particularly in recent years.
Fats and oils contain different proportions of long and medium chain fatty acids. The medium chain fatty acids are found in medium chain triglycerides. The medium chain fatty acids are smaller and have better water solubility. This makes them easier to absorb. The lymphatic system absorbs long chain fatty acids. On the other hand, the liver absorbs medium chain fatty acids directly and metabolizes them for energy. This reduces the amount of these fats that are freely floating around in the blood. However, the long chain fatty acids have to go through the lymphatics and travel throughout body before reaching the liver. This gives them plenty of time to leave plaque deposits in our blood vessels.
Due to the above-mentioned properties, medium chain fatty acids have been used in people that have problems absorbing fats and people with gallbladder disease. Studies suggest that medium chain fatty acids are associated with a reduction in total body fat and lower risk of heart disease.
The good, the bad and the ugly
So, to summarize all this information, here are the take home points:
- Trans-fat = bad
- Saturated fat = historically bad
- Unsaturated fat = good
- LDL = bad cholesterol
- HDL = good cholesterol
- Medium chain fatty acids = good
- Long chain fatty acids = variable, depends on type
Ok, now that we have a base, let’s talk about coconut oil healthy or not?
Coconut oil and Virgin coconut oil
Coconut oil has a high content of saturated fat. The scientific community believes saturated fat increases the risk of heart disease. However, it is important to note that coconut oil is rich in those good medium chain fatty acids.
Traditionally, coconut oil is made from the dry kernel of the coconut. It undergoes a process where it is bleached, refined and deodorized (why are we doing this to begin with?). This process makes the oil lose many of its natural active substances and changes its properties. Alternately, virgin coconut oil is obtained from the fresh, mature kernel by mechanical or natural means without the use of chemical refining process.
Virgin coconut oil has a rich content of the medium chain fatty acids (59-62%) caproic acid, caprylic acid, capric acid and lauric acid. It has 28-31% saturated fatty acids, 6-8% unsaturated fatty acids. Animal trials have shown it to have a high phenolic content, much higher than regular coconut oil. Phenolic has great antioxidant properties. This promotes anti-inflammatory processes, which we know are important for the prevention of heart disease.
Furthermore, animal studies looking at virgin coconut oil suggest that it:
- Improves lipid profile (aka fat in blood) by preventing LDL oxidation when compared to regular coconut oil
- Lowers blood pressure and increase nitric oxide (our natural blood vessel dilator, which is exactly what you want if you have any plaque obstructing your blood vessels) when compared to palm oil
- Improved blood clotting studies when compared to regular coconut oil
In humans, a study looking at medium chain fatty acid consumption showed that diabetics who supplemented their diet with it for 3 months had:
- Improved body weight
- Smaller waist circumference
- Improved lipid profile
- Increased insulin sensitivity
Unfortunately, at this time we don’t have great studies comparing virgin coconut oil to other types oil often considered healthy oils, such as olive oil, which is rich in unsaturated fats.
A recent study showed that the lipid profile of rats fed diets rich in virgin coconut oil demonstrated a reduction in total cholesterol, triglycerides and LDL levels. Also, HDL levels increased significantly. Another study with mice, found that mice receiving virgin coconut oil and then exposed to a stressor (for the mice that was swimming), had higher levels of brain antioxidants and reduced levels of stress hormones!
Additionally, lauric acid, one of the medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil, has been shown to inhibit tumor cell growth in colon cancer, breast cancer and endometrial cancer.
Putting it all together
Ok, so now what? Is coconut oil healthy or not? I think the evidence is pretty compelling for virgin coconut oil. On a personal note, I have been using virgin coconut oil, along with olive oil and avocado oil, as my preferred oils for several years now. I can’t say I have seen an elevation in my blood lipids when compared to when I was eating fat free everything (milk, snacks, etc). Also, I don’t buy anything fat free. I do pay attention to the types of fat that are present in products. In addition, I minimize processed foods. Must say I feel better and less tired than before.
I think as long as you are being judicious in your fat choices, virgin coconut oil is a great way to complement your diet. Although the jury is not out yet in coconut oil, the evidence is accumulating for virgin coconut oil. I would definitely stick to virgin coconut oil and avoid regular coconut oil. It is also a great moisturizer and has many other uses! What about you? Do you use coconut oil? How do you use it?
I will see you guys next week and to those who celebrate, HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!!