In a rapidly expanding industry where weight management is the most common driving and motivating factor for exercise, it is easy to become buried amongst the vastly conflicting evidence in trying to assist our clients to be successful. In relation to dietary advice an area that is heavily supported by scientific research, but not so much by the popular press, is the inclusion of a sufficient amount of coconut oil!
Coconut oil is the most saturated of all fats, with 91% of the fatty acids being saturated. As you can imagine this high saturated fatty acid profile has traditionally made coconut oil unpopular as a valuable contributor to a healthy diet. Coconut oil is particularly rich in medium-chain triglycerides; composing as much as 69% of the total fatty acid ratio.1 The exceptionally high content of saturated, medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) has interested the scientific community for many years. Research highlighting the health promoting benefits of the medium-chain saturates in coconut oil has been around since the late 1950’s. 2 Despite this, the main evidence brought to public attention over the last 30 – 40 years has been very much focused on decreasing the saturated fat intake in our diets. This has led to coconut oil being vilified both by experts and by the media as a source of dietary fat to be avoided due to its potential for negative impact on human physiology.
It may be illuminating to know that there are experts who boldly contradict the saturated fat/heart disease hypothesis regardless of its general acceptance. Harvard’s world renowned nutrition expert, Walter Willett M.D. in speaking of the infamous Dietary Modification Trial acknowledged that even though ‘the focus of dietary recommendations is usually a reduction of saturated fat intake, no relation between saturated fat intake and risk of CHD was observed in the most informative prospective study to date.’ 3
Perhaps the most prominent and the longest running scientific trial on record looking at diet, cholesterol, lifestyle and heart disease has been researched over a 40 year period in Framingham, Massachusetts. 6000 subjects have been involved in this investigation over the years generating a huge volume of valid and ground breaking information. One of the trial director’s, William P. Castelli, declared in 1992 after he retired that ‘In Framingham, Mass, the more saturated fat one ate, the more cholesterol one ate, the more calories one ate, the lower the person’s serum cholesterol. . . we found that the people who ate the most cholesterol, ate the most saturated fat, ate the most calories, weighed the least and were the most physically active.’ 4 Whilst these are the scientifically informed views of two experts in the field, these statements do fly in the face of widespread opinion. But if two world class specialists on the subject of diet and health are questioning our long-held beliefs regarding saturated fat, should we not at least open our minds to the possibility that they could be on to something? Many forward-thinking scientists and experts in the last decade have put their names on the line and do not support the idea that saturated fats are the primary cause of heart disease. First and foremost, there are more than 30 different types of saturated fatty acids from short chain, 4 carbon butyric acid (found in dairy) to the much longer, 18 carbon, stearic acid (found in many animal fats) and many more beyond. Apart from the most commonly occurring 16 carbon chain, palmitic acid, many saturated fatty acids have been shown to have little effect on heart disease outcomes or coronary events. Studies show that many types of saturated fat may be neutral in their effects. This does not mean they are protective to overall health, but it also does not hang the blame of poor cardiovascular health around their necks. Palmitic acid being the exception. Palmitic acid is found in many different types of food, such as dairy, meat, poultry, lard, palm oil, cocoa butter, soybean oil, peanuts, corn oil and olive oil. So it is common in both plant and animal foods alike.
Getting back to coconut oil, unlike many other saturated fats that can be produced by our liver, the mammary gland is the only place in the body that produces MCT’s. This makes it a nutritious and vital component of breast milk, nature’s perfect food! There are only 3 sources of MCT’s in the adult diet; smaller amounts are found in butterfat and palm kernel oil, whereas large amounts, as mentioned earlier, are present in coconut oil.5 MCT’s are also gentler on the digestive tract as they do not require the catabolic action of bile to break it down. This makes it an excellent fat to introduce when a low-fat diet has been followed for some time and fat digestion may have become weak.5 There is a very convincing body of evidence about the benefits of coconut oil, particularly as an effective tool for body fat loss and optimising energy!
Research carried out on rats showed that rats fed 45% of calories as MCT’s had virtually no body fat deposited compared to larger body fat deposits found on those fed long-chain triglycerides (LCT).6 Another rat study demonstrated decreasing body fat levels due to an increase in metabolic rate and thermogenesis (increased heat or energy output) when the study group was fed MCT’s.7 A research trial carried out at McGill University in Canada showed that MCT’s increased body fat oxidation in women and could be suitable as a supporting factor in long term weight control.8 Several different scientific studies on men showed that when MCT’s are eaten there is a resultant increase in weight loss and body fat oxidation, a boosting of metabolism and increased energy expenditure compared to control groups. 9,10,11,12
Another revealing study showed that the MCT’s in coconut are burned up three times faster than other more commonly consumed long-chain fats and oils.10 When the effects of ‘heart healthy’ olive oil were compared to coconut oil there was significantly greater loss of adipose tissue when the latter was consumed. The authors commented that ‘MCT’s may be considered as agents that aid in the prevention of obesity or potentially stimulate weight loss.’ 13 Scientific trials that have involved both men and women found that MCT’s increased weight loss and energy expenditure. One such study interestingly concluded ‘that MCT’s increase energy expenditure, (and) may result in faster satiety and facilitate weight control.’ 14,15
In our efforts to beat the bulge and improve our health we must stop slipping into the long-held oversimplification that we should significantly reduce the amount of fat in our diets. Fats, including some types of saturated, are not all bad; in fact some are exceptionally good for our health. It is widely accepted that omega 3 fatty acids are beneficial and we often read advice about increasing our intake of these valuable fats. To become healthy, lean and fighting fit the evidence in support of including highly saturated, medium chain coconut oil in our diets is hugely positive. Coconut oil could be an additional and highly effective secret weapon in your weight management plan. So get ahead of the game and start using good quality oils. Seek for organic, cold pressed extra virgin coconut oils which are readily available at heath food shops, on the high street, supermarkets and the internet.
Ideas for introducing coconut oil into your diet:
- Melt a tbsp. of coconut oil in some warm water and drink as a coconut tea – also delicious in a cup of cocoa made with whole milk
- Use coconut oil, cream, milk or desiccated in curries or spicy meals where appropriate
- Use quality fats such as butter and olive oil blended with coconut oil in baking, bread making or pastry
- Enjoy a morning bowl of organic porridge oats with some coconut oil, cinnamon and a sprinkling of nuts and seeds
- Melt creamed coconut and quickly mix with a natural organic yoghurt
- Use coconut oil as a natural moisturiser for the hands, face and skin in general
- Hashim SA, Clancy RE, Hegsted DM, Stare FJ. Effect of mixed fat formula feeding on serum cholesterol level in man. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 7:30-34;1959
- Willett W. Editorial: Challenges for public health nutrition in the 1990s. American Journal of Public Health. 80:1295-1298;1990.
- Castelli WP. Editorial: Concerning the possibility of a nut… Archives of Internal Medicine 152:1371-2;1992.
- Enig M, Fallon S. Eat fat Lose fat. Plume, Penguin Group, 2005
- Geliebter A, Torbay N, Bracco EF, Hashim SA, Van Itallie TB. Overfeeding with medium-chain triglyceride diet results in diminished deposition of fat. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 37:1-4, 1983
- Baba N, Bracco EF, Hashim SA. Enhanced thermogenesis and diminished deposition of fat in response to overfeeding with diet containing medium-chain triglycerides. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 35:678-682, 1982.
- Papamandjaris AA, White MD, Raeini-Sarjaz M, Jones PJ. Endogenous fat oxidation during medium-chain versus long-chain triglyceride feeding in healthy women. The International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders. 24:1158-66, 2000.
- St-Onge MP, Jones PJ. Greater rise in fat oxidation with medium-chain triglyceride consumption relative to long-chain triglyceride is associated with lower initial body weight and greater loss of subcutaneous adipose tissue. The International Journal of Obesity Related Metabolic Disorders. 27:1565-71, 2003.
- DeLany JP, Windhauser MM, Champagne CM, Bray GA. Differential oxidation of individual dietary fatty acids in humans. The American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 72: 905-911, 2000.
- Seaton TB, Welle SL, Warenko MK, Campbell RG. Thermic effect of medium-chain and long-chain triglycerides in man. The American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 44:630-634, 1986.
- Scalfi L, Coltorti A, Contaldo F. Postprandial thermogenesis in lean and obese subjects after meals supplemented with medium-chain and long-chain triglycerides. The American Society for Clinical Nutrition. 53:1130-1133, 1991.
- St-Onge MP, Ross R, Parsons WD, Jones PJ. Medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men. Obesity Research. 11:395-402, 2003.
- Tsuji H, Kasai M, Takeuchi H, Nakamura M, Okazaki M, Kondo K. Dietary medium-chain triacylglycerols suppress accumulation of body fat in double-blind, controlled trial in healthy men and women. Journal of Nutrition. 131:2853-9, 2001.
- St-Onge MP, Jones PJ. Physiological effects of medium-chain triglycerides: potential agents in the prevention of obesity. Journal of Nutrition. 132:329-32, 2002.