A quick Google search of coconut oil can lead to some confusing results. Some websites claim that coconut oil is a miracle oil that can “Reverse Alzheimer’s Disease” while other warn that eating too much saturated fatty acids can lead to increased cholesterol and heart disease. Flipping down the list of websites you may find information that states that coconut oil may even help to lower cholesterol levels in the blood and be a heart healthy oil that should be consumed on a daily basis.
So does the truth lie somewhere in the middle?
Oils in general can be divided into different categories based upon their different chemical structures. Because of the differences in structure they have different effects on the body. Oils consist of a chain of carbon molecules that have hydrogens attached to them. If all the carbon atoms are saturated with hydrogen atoms the oil is said to be saturated. If the the chain is missing some hydrogens and have double bonds they are said to be unsaturated. If the chain contains 1 double bond it is said to be monounsaturated and if it has 2 or more double bonds it is said to be polyunsaturated.
Recently, saturated fats have been attacked for causing an increase in cholesterol levels and it has been stated that they should be limited in ones everyday diet. Many groups have made blanket statements that say that eating any type of saturated fat will raise you levels of cholesterol in your blood and consequently raise your risk of having heart disease or stroke. These blanket statements incorrectly group coconut oil in with other saturated fats and condemn them for having detrimental effects that they simply do not have.
Saturated fats can be divided into Long Chain Fatty Acids (LCFA) that are most found in vegetable oils and other seed oils or Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFA) of which coconut oil is primarily composed of. These two types of saturated fatty acids are metabolized completely differently by the body and while the common media likes to group them together into the same category of “saturated fats” their effects on the body are vastly different. MCFA’s don’t have all the artery clogging, adipose forming, energy sucking properties of their longer counterparts and are actually shown to have a lot of healthy benefits to the body.
The Medium Chain Fatty Acids (MCFA’s) in coconut oil are actually a very efficient source of fuel for the body and actually has been shown to reduce abdominal obesity when consumed on a daily basis. It has been shown that the consumption of Lauric Acid (one of the Medium Chain Fatty Acids found in coconut oil) can actually increase HDL “good” cholesterol and improve cholesterol ratio levels.
Coconut oil has been consumed in high quantities by populations living in the tropics for centuries and for some populations it has been a staple source of calories. In some cases up to 60% of certain populations caloric intake comes from the saturated fats of coconut oil. These populations have actually been shown to have relatively low levels of obesity and consequently have levels of cardiovascular diseases that are relatively low compared to cultures that do not consume the high levels of Medium Chain Fatty Acids.
Coconut oil has some other random effects on the body that can have some great health benefits. Some components of coconut oil have been shown to have a lot of good antioxidant qualities which can help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and early aging. The lipid structure of coconut oil has also been shown to have anti-bacterial, anti-viral or anti-fungal qualities and may help to thwart some common illnesses and skin conditions caused by certain bacteria and viruses.
Coconut oil has also been used for decades as a hair treatment and skin moisturizer. In some countries the entire coconut oil industry is based upon the use of coconut oil for cosmetic purposes. So, if you do buy into the ill-researched and short-sighted view point that all saturated fats are detrimental to your health, at least take in the benefits by slathering it all over your skin and hair…maybe you’ll reduce your risk of a heart attack by simply absorbing it through your skin. Or you could just eat it.