By Dr. Mercola
Despite more than 1,700 medical studies1 being performed on coconut oil, it continues to be vilified mainly because 90 percent of its fat content is saturated fat. However, saturated fats, and most particularly coconut oil, are a vital part of the human diet. For decades, we've labored under the false belief that saturated fat is a leading cause of heart disease. Research suggests there is no significant evidence demonstrating that saturated fat clogs your arteries or puts you at risk for a heart attack or stroke.
In fact, particular types of saturated fat, including coconut oil, are necessary for optimal health. If you have bought into the media hype that saturated fats are unhealthy and will raise your risk of heart disease, please reconsider your position. If you've been avoiding coconut oil, you'll find that it has many beneficial properties that make it a worthwhile addition to your diet.
Certainly, if you've stayed away from coconut oil because you've been misled to believe it is fattening, you deserve to know the truth that it can actually help you lose weight, not gain it. Having said that, if you are allergic to coconut oil or you simply don't like the taste, then it's best not to use it.
Where Coconut Oil Has Been Used, People Thrive
It's no secret that coconut products, particularly coconut oil, have been used by certain populations around the world for millennia. In places where coconut oil is consumed as part of the standard diet, people seem to thrive. So, what do they know about coconut oil that you may not?
Take, for example, Polynesian populations such as the Pukapuka and Tokelau, where people eat a lot of coconut. As such, their diet tends to be high in saturated fat and low in cholesterol and sugar. Researchers found that "vascular disease is uncommon in both populations and there is no evidence of the high saturated-fat intake having a harmful effect."2
Another study3 focused on the Kitevan people in Papua New Guinea, whose subsistence lifestyle and diet has remained untarnished by the poor dietary habits of the Western world. Besides eating a lot of fish, fruit and tubers, the people also consume coconut as a prominent staple.
None of the people involved in the study reported stroke, sudden death, chest pain or discomfort due to coronary heart disease (CHD). In fact, the researchers concluded that stroke and CHD appeared to be absent in this population. Based on those two studies, we can infer that the plentiful inclusion of coconut oil in traditional diets around the world contributes positively to the health and well-being of those eating it.
According to Dr. Bruce Fife, author of "The Coconut Oil Miracle" and director of the Coconut Research Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado:4
"Asian and Polynesian people who rely on coconut and coconut oil as a part of their daily diet have the lowest heart-disease rates in the world. Some of these people get as much as 50 percent of their total daily calories as saturated fat, primarily from coconut oil.
If coconut oil caused heart disease, as some people used to believe, these islanders would have all died off centuries ago. Those populations who consume large quantities of coconut oil have remarkably good cardiovascular health. Absent are the heart attacks and strokes characteristic in Western countries where coconut oil is rarely used."
Conventional Medicine Says All Saturated Fats Are the Same
In Western conventional medicine, coconut oil faces some tough critics who are less convinced of its health benefits. Andrew Freeman, director of the American College of Cardiology's nutrition and lifestyle working group, suggested to CBS News that coconut oil is nothing more than a fad, and one he wishes would go away.5
"People seem to be eating it and drinking it with everything — adding it to coffee, cooking their vegetables with it — and it's giving them large quantities of fat. …
It's not a recommended oil by any of the guidelines that I know of. In general, it can contribute to cardiovascular-disease risk because of its very high saturated-fat content. The standard American diet … is already high-fat and full of a lot of processed meats and cheese, and now everyone's adding coconut oil, and we're going in the wrong direction."
Libby Mills, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the U.S. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says coconut oil is a mixed bag, though she understands why it's being talked about so much.6
"As a society, we're always looking for the panacea — the one thing that's really going to fix it all. While some of the research is promising, and the MCT (medium-chain triglyceride) oils in coconut oil are very attractive, unfortunately they come with a lot of saturated fat packaging."
How Is Coconut Oil Different From Other Saturated Fats?
What Freeman and others may not realize is that coconut oil is different from other types of saturated fat. The saturated fat in coconut oil is unlike the types of saturated fat found in vegetable oils, meat and cheese, for example. Whereas those fats are known as long-chain fats, about two-thirds of the fat in coconut oil are medium-chain fats, also referred to as a medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
Long-chain fats are digested slowly and absorbed through your intestinal wall where they are combined into bundles of fat and protein called lipoproteins. These lipoproteins are distributed throughout your body through your bloodstream. Your body metabolizes MCTs, such as coconut oil, differently from other fats. Normally, fats taken into your body must first be mixed with bile released from your gallbladder, and second be acted on by pancreatic enzymes. Only then can fats be broken down in your digestive system.
MCTs, however, don't require bile or pancreatic enzymes to be digested. Once they reach your intestine, they diffuse through your intestinal membrane into your bloodstream. From there, they are transported directly to your liver, which naturally converts MCTs into ketones. Your liver then releases the ketones back into your bloodstream, where they are transported throughout your body.
Notably, MCTs are readily available and used for energy, not stored as fat. MCTs can even pass the blood-brain barrier to supply your brain with energy. This is one of the reasons coconut oil is thought to have positive effects on those suffering from Alzheimer's disease.
Coconut Oil Contains Four Types of MCTs
As a general rule, the shorter the carbon chain, the more efficiently the MCT is converted into ketones, which are an excellent, clean source of energy for your body — far preferable to glucose, as ketones produce far less reactive oxygen species that produce excessive dangerous free radicals. MCTs can be divided into four groups based on their carbon length:7
- 6 carbons (C6), caproic acid
- 8 carbons (C8), caprylic acid
- 10 carbons (C10), capric acid
- 12 carbons (C12), lauric acid
Coconut oil provides a mix of all the medium-chain fats, including C6, C8, C10 and C12 fats, the latter of which (lauric acid) makes up over 40 percent of the fat in coconut oil. (The exception is MCT oil, which is fractionated coconut oil or palm oil, which contains primarily C8 and C10.8) There are benefits to all of these fatty acids. However, caprylic and capric fatty acids increase ketone levels far more effectively.
Lauric acid is most well-known for its antibacterial, antimicrobial and antiviral properties. The shorter-chained MCTs, on the other hand, are more readily converted into ketones, which are an excellent mitochondrial fuel. Ketones also help suppress ghrelin (aka the hunger hormone) and enhance another hormone that signals your brain when you're full.
Most commercial brands of MCT oil contain close to a 50/50 combination of C8 and C10 fats. My personal preference, even though it is more expensive, is straight C8 (caprylic acid), as it converts to ketones far more rapidly than do C10 fats, and may be easier on your digestion. That said, coconut oil is a less expensive option overall, and can readily be used in all sorts of cooking and other household uses.
Is Coconut Oil Fattening?
A study conducted on 40 women with abdominal obesity revealed positive effects related to coconut-oil supplementation.9 After 12 weeks, the women consuming coconut oil daily showed a reduction in waist circumference, as compared to the group who consumed soybean oil.
In addition, coconut oil increased the participants' HDL (high-density lipoprotein), or "good" cholesterol, and lowered their ration of LDL (low-density lipoprotein), or "bad" cholesterol to HDL. Soybean oil led to decreases in HDL. Although it seems counterintuitive to add fat to your diet to lose weight, Dr. Bruce Fife, featured in the video above, says:10
"Adding fat into your diet can be the key to your weight loss success. Low-fat dieting actually causes weight gain, and is one of the reasons for our current obesity epidemic. You can lose weight on these diets temporarily, but in the long run you end up gaining all your weight back, and then some. In fact, studies show that 95 percent of those people who go on low-fat diets eventually regain all their weight.
That's a 95 percent failure rate! It should be obvious that what we've been doing isn't working. …Fat also satisfies hunger so that you don't feel like you are starving. You feel satisfied. In fact, with an adequate amount of fat, you don't get hungry even when you cut down on total calorie intake. Your metabolism and energy levels remain elevated. You feel a lot better and get better results."
My new book, "Fat for Fuel," explains many of the health benefits associated with a diet high in healthy fats, including coconut oil. Indeed, the ketogenic diet, featuring low net carb and high fat intake, has been shown to be beneficial for many chronic health conditions, including cancer, and can significantly improve your chances of weight loss.
At the New York Obesity Research Center at Columbia University, in a study of 49 overweight men and women, researchers noted that participants consuming MCT oil lost more weight than those consuming olive oil. Researchers reported:11 "Consumption of MCT oil as part of a weight loss plan improves weight loss compared with olive oil and can thus be successfully included in a weight loss diet. Small changes in the quality of fat intake can therefore be useful to enhance weight loss."
Are You Familiar With the Benefits of Coconut Oil?
If you haven't had a chance to explore all the extraordinary uses for coconut oil, you may be in for a pleasant surprise. Unlike other saturated fats, coconut oil contains no trans-fatty acids. Coconut oil won't oxidize when heated, so it's great for cooking and baking. It is also shelf-stable and won't go rancid. Beyond these intrinsic qualities, coconut oil has many benefits, some of which may surprise you.
Lauric acid makes up about half of the fatty acids in coconut oil. When lauric acid is digested, it morphs into a monoglyceride called monolaurin. Both lauric acid and monolaurin help rid your gut of harmful pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites.
These substances have been shown to kill the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria and Candida albicans, a common source of yeast infections.12 Coconut oil also works on fungal infections such as athlete's foot and ringworm. The European Journal of Pediatrics reported research suggesting a blend of coconut oil and anise was almost twice as effective as the commonly prescribed (and toxic) permethrin lotion for treating head lice.13
The Effects of Coconut Oil on Brain Function
As mentioned above, the MCTs in coconut oil are digested through your liver, which creates ketones that supply energy directly to your brain. Research focused on determining the effect of a ketogenic agent on individuals with mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease suggests there are some benefits to MCT supplementation with respect to cognitive impairment:14
"In small-scale human trials,MCT supplementation boosted cognition in individuals with cognitive impairment and mild forms of Alzheimer's disease after just a single dose. While not everyone improved from the MCT treatment, those with certain genetics experienced notable improvement."
Ketones are the preferred source of energy for your brain in people affected by Alzheimer's diabetes, Parkinson's and maybe even ALS, because in these diseases, certain neurons have become insulin resistant or have lost the ability to efficiently utilize glucose. As a result, neurons slowly die off.
The introduction of ketones may rescue these neurons, enabling them to potentially survive and thrive. One study promoted the positive effects of ketone ester in treating Alzheimer's disease, noting improvements in patient behavior, cognition and performance of daily activities.15 In the 2013 TED Talk below, Dr. Mary Newport discusses the potential benefits of coconut oil in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease.
Coconut Oil Prevents Heart Disease and High Blood Pressure
Heart disease, which includes heart attacks, stroke and other cardiovascular diseases, is the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. Someone in the U.S. has a heart attack every 34 seconds, and someone dies from a heart disease-related event every 60 seconds.16 Despite what you may have been led to believe, saturated fats like coconut oil are not to blame for the spike in coronary heart disease. On the contrary, coconut oil:
- Increases your HDL cholesterol
- Helps convert your LDL cholesterol into good cholesterol
- Fosters heart health and lowers your risk of heart disease due to the increase in HDL17
Use Coconut Oil to Prevent Gum Disease and Tooth Decay
I have often mentioned oil pulling with coconut oil as a superb way to cleanse and flush harmful bacteria from your mouth. This technique is especially beneficial if you've been diagnosed with periodontal disease. Because of its high concentration of antibacterial MCTs, coconut oil is ideal for oil pulling. One of the positive side effects of oil pulling is that coconut oil also naturally whitens your teeth. This is an oral hygiene habit I do every day.
Coconut Oil for Personal Care and Insect Repellent
Coconut oil is not only a useful food, but can also be a great personal-care product. Here are some additional ways you can use coconut oil:
- Apply it to dry or cracked skin for instant relief
- Use it as a facial cleanser, lip balm or makeup remover
- Try it as a shaving lotion; its antiseptic properties will soothe any cuts or nicks
- Slather it on dry, lifeless hair for 15 minutes to help restore lost moisture and shine
In addition, while coconut oil doesn't impart the minty aftertaste that accompanies most toothpaste, brushing your teeth with it before bed helps kill bacteria that cause plaque and other problems. If you miss the minty taste, just add a drop of peppermint essential oil. If you want more grit, mix it with a little baking soda. If you're looking for a natural deodorant that will give lasting protection without the potential health risks from added aluminum, mix the following ingredients and apply to clean underarms:
- 3 Tbsp. organic coconut oil
- 3 Tbsp. non-GMO cornstarch or arrowroot powder
- 3 Tbsp. baking soda
- 2 drops of essential oil of your choice, or a pinch of clove powder
As for an insect repellent, a good recipe combines coconut oil with a high-quality essential oil such as peppermint, lemon balm, rosemary, tea tree or vanilla. This is a good alternative to toxic sprays such as DEET and smells a lot better too!