If you’ve read my blog on the latest saturated fat research, you’ll know that I don’t think it’s as evil as we’ve been led to believe. But to lump coconut oil in with the bad rap that animal fats have received is close to a sin in my book. You see, not all saturated fats are created equal. Not only is coconut oil not unhealthy, it’s actually unbelievably good for you.
I know that this takes a bit of a mind shift. But consider for a minute the fact that Pacific Islanders, who eat a huge amount of coconut, rarely suffer the host of diseases that ‘Western-diet-munchers’ do. I recently read about one study on the diets of two populations of Polynesians. Coconut was a large source of energy for both groups, with one group deriving 63% and the other 34% of their energy from coconut. Modern public opinion would have you quaking in your shoes at the thought of eating such huge amounts of saturated fat. But even though those who ate more coconut did have higher cholesterol, the report showed that vascular disease was uncommon in both groups. The authors actually found that this type of saturated fat was not harmful to either group. I would go one step further and say that, not only was the coconut in their diet not harmful, it was beneficial. And the secret lies in its structure.
Now I don’t particularly enjoy chemistry, except when it has real implications in an area I’m passionate about. The chemistry of coconut oil interests me because it explains the uniqueness of the amazing coconut. I’ll try to keep it short and sweet in case you’re not quite as enthralled as I am. You probably know that the vast majority of fatty acids in coconut oil are saturated, but saturated with what? Bear with me. Basically, triglycerides (fat) are made up of three fatty acids linked together by one glycerol molecule. Each ‘fatty acid’ is a chain of carbon atoms with hydrogen atoms attached. Each carbon atom can ‘hold onto’ two hydrogen atoms, and if all their hands are full (so to speak) it is considered saturated.
So why does this matter? Well, believe it or not, being saturated can actually be a good thing, because it makes the fat more stable and resistant to free radicals. These nasty little free radicals can more easily attack those places where the carbons don’t ‘have their hands full’ – that’s right, the unsaturated part of the fat. I kind of imagine (just for the purposes of visual imagery) that the hydrogen atoms form a shield that surrounds the carbon atoms. The more holes there are in the shield (i.e. the more unsaturated it is) the easier it is for their defenses to crumble. Once the free radicals hit the weak spots in unsaturated fat (which happens when oils are exposed to light, oxygen or heat), they go roaring around our body (using up our antioxidant reserves) and damaging our cells left, right and centre. This is why coconut oil is the best oil for cooking; it is stable enough to survive far more heat induced damage that the other oils. Please note that hydrogenated fat like margarine (a phony saturated fat containing trans fats) bares little resemblance to natural saturated fat, and our body knows it.
As well as being predominantly saturated, coconut oil consists of mostly medium and short-chain fatty acids. The length of these chains has a huge effect on health. The long-chain fatty acids - think vegetable oil, which has infiltrated our supermarket shelves - are the baddies in this story. These long-chained fatty acids easily sneak into our fat cells for storage, are tricky to break down, and place a strain on our digestive system. Medium-chain fatty acids, on the other hand, like those found in coconut oil, are the very opposite. They enter cell membranes easily without the need for special enzymes, put less stress on the digestive system and are used mostly as energy (as opposed to being stored as fat). Yipee!
Of all the medium-chain fatty acids there is one that is particularly extraordinary. It also happens to be the predominant medium-chain fatty acid found in coconut oil. This secret ingredient, which gives coconut oil is super powers, is called lauric acid. When converted in your body to monolaurin, it has anti-viral, anti-bacterial and anti-parasitic properties. Whilst it will attack the microbes in our body, it leaves the rest of our cells alone.
The list of health benefits from coconut oil may well blow you away (not literally I hope). It has been found to assist in the areas of weight loss, infections, ageing, liver disease, neurological disorders, skin conditions, chronic fatigue and even help in some cancer and HIV patients. This list is only the tip of the iceberg. There really is so much information on its benefits I could write a whole book instead of a blog. Luckily I don’t need to do that because its already been done many times. For more information I recommend reading Dr Fife’s book “The Coconut Miracle”.
Oil Pulling Update
For those of you who have read part one of my coconut series (the one on oil pulling), you may be wondering if I'm still a fan a couple of weeks on. The answer is definitely ‘YES’. I have tried to do it twice daily, and in the main I have succeeded. I always find the morning is the easiest. I just do it first thing before breakfast and it's become routine (the only sure fire way to make any healthy habit feasible in the long term). I do make sure though that I let my family know in advance my intentions to oil pull: "ask now or hold your peace for twenty minutes" I announce. Otherwise I inevitably get a complex list of questions fired at me moments after the oil has entered my mouth! On the plus side, we are all getting better at charades.
The improvements I found in my energy and sleep have continued (this is more noticeable when I oil-pull twice a day, compared to once). And another handy thing I've discovered is that it appears to subdue my appetite for a short time immediately afterwards. So it's perfect to do while preparing a meal because it stops me snacking (rather tricky with a mouth full of oil), and actually postpones my hunger pangs. As you can probably tell, I’ve become a bit hooked. I feel really out of sorts if I only manage to do it once in a day. What a lovely obsession to have J
May you be full of coconut and all its glory,