If I asked you which dietary oil provides the widest range of health benefits, what would be your answer? What oil can help protect you from heart disease, improve your digestion, increase your energy level, strengthen your immune system, and enhance your overall health? If I told you the answer is coconut oil, would you be surprised? Most people are.
Once mistakenly believed to be bad for the heart because of its saturated fat content, coconut oil is now known to contain a unique form of saturated fat that actually helps prevent heart attacks, stroke, and hardening of the arteries, as well as providing many other health benefits.
Asian and Polynesian people who rely on coconut and coconut oil as part of their daily diet have the lowest heart disease rates in the world. Some of these people get as much as 50% of their daily calories as saturated fat, primarily from coconut oil. If coconut oil caused heart disease, as some 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.
What many people don’t realize is that there are many different types of saturated fat, just as there are different types of polyunsaturated fat. Each has a different effect on the body. The saturated fat in coconut oil is unlike the fat found in meat or even other vegetable fats. It is identical to a special group of fats found in human breast milk called medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) also referred to as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). These special fatty acids have been shown to stimulate the metabolism, improve digestion, strengthen the immune system, and protect against bacterial, viral, and fungal infections, as well as protect the heart and arteries from the conditions that cause heart disease. For these and other reasons coconut oil, in one form or another, has routinely been used in commercial baby formulas.
One of the major differences between MCFAs and other fats is the way in which they are digested and metabolized. Most fats in our diet – whether they are saturated or unsaturated – are in the form of large molecules called long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs). Both vegetable oils and animal fats are composed almost entirely of long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs). The medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) in coconut are much smaller in size. Smaller size makes a big difference.
The large LCFAs are digested slowly. As they are absorbed through the intestinal wall they are combined into bundles of fat and protein called lipoproteins. These lipoproteins are sent into the bloodstream to be distributed throughout the body. These are the fats that end up on artery walls and fill up fat cells.
MCFAs, on the other hand, are so small that they don’t need pancreatic enzymes for digestion and are quickly absorbed and channeled directly to the liver rather than the bloodstream. In the liver they are used as fuel to produce energy. Therefore, they don’t circulate in the bloodstream to the degree that other fats do. Consequently, they don’t collect on artery walls or contribute to hardening of the arteries and don’t collect in fat cells or contribute to weight gain. They are used to produce energy – not arterial plaque, and not body fat.
The fact that the fatty acids in coconut oil are used as fuel to generate energy, rather than put into storage like other fats, provides many remarkable health benefits. The most obvious is a boost in energy. The energy boost is not like the kick you get from caffeine; it’s more subtle but longer lasting. It is most noticeable as an increase in endurance. This effect is accumulative, that is, energy level increases with daily use. Studies have shown when athletes are given MCFAs during training their performance and endurance improves. For this reason, coconut oil is added to many sports drinks and energy bars. Nature puts MCFAs in breast milk for many reasons. Its ability to be quickly digested for use as energy is an important one. This feature allows for enhanced nutrient absorption compared with other fats. Most other fats in the typical diet are composed of long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs). Soybean, corn, canola, olive and other cooking oils are composed entirely of LCFAs. Because of the larger size of the LCFAs, they are much more difficult to digest. Infants cannot digest and metabolize LCFAs effectively. Therefore, easily digestible MCFAs are essential to a baby’s survival. That is one reason that coconut oil or MCT oil is added to infant formula.
MCFAs are not only important to infants, but for older children and adults as well. Because it is easy to digest, coconut oil has been a lifesaver for many people. It is used medicinally in special food preparations for those who suffer digestive disorders and have difficulty digesting fats. For this reason, it is also used for the treatment of malnutrition. Since it is rapidly absorbed, it can deliver quick nourishment without putting excessive strain on the digestive and enzyme systems, and helps conserve the body’s energy that would normally be expended in digesting other fats.
Medium-chain fatty acids also improve the absorption of many other nutrients. The absorption of minerals (particularly calcium and magnesium), B vitamins, fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, K and beta-carotene) and also amino acids have been found to increase when infants are fed a diet containing coconut oil.
Patients suffering from B vitamin deficiencies have been helped simply by giving them coconut oil. The oil itself doesn’t supply any B vitamins, but enhances the absorption of the vitamins already in the diet.
Coconut oil has also been used to enhance utilization and retention of calcium and magnesium when a deficiency of these minerals exists. This is especially true in the case of rickets, which involves a vitamin D deficiency and the demineralization of the bones. Children suffering from rickets have recovered simply by adding coconut oil to their diet. For those who are concerned about developing osteoporosis as they get older, coconut oil may also be useful in helping to slow down this degenerative process by improving mineral absorption.
It’s no wonder nature put MCFAs in breast milk. The unique fatty acids are easy to digest, supply a source of quick energy, support thyroid function (which enhances healing and immune system function), and improve nutrient absorption. In addition, medical research indicates coconut oil may be useful in protecting against heart disease, breast and colon cancer, liver disease, kidney disease, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, candida, herpes, influenza, and numerous other infectious diseases.
Fortunately, babies aren’t the only ones who can benefit from MCFAs. We can enjoy all of the benefits of MCFAs by adding coconut oil to our diets.
Bruce Fife, ND is the director of the Coconut Research Center and author of over 20 books including “The Coconut Oil Miracle” and “Coconut Cures”.
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