Tag Archives: coconut oil

Coconut Oil 's Mythical Properties for Health, Nutrition and Performance

Coconut oil is an extra-ordinary food.

Coconut oil is an extraordinary food.  But what makes coconut oil special?  Coconut oil is a natural source of fat.  But what gives coconut oil its mythic properties as a perfect food?

Coconut oil and health nutrition and athletic performance.
Does coconut oil improve athletic performance and increase longevity? No one knows for absolutely sure that it doesn’t.

Coconut oil as a nutrient

Coconut oil is rich in medium chain saturated fat.  There is some evidence that medium chain saturated fatty acids may help with weight loss, possibly by suppressing appetite. Some saturated fat in the diet is probably OK.  Maybe we need some saturated fat in our diets to be healthy.  Who knows?  Unfortunately or not, research continues to show that diets high in saturated fat are unhealthy.  Research also continues to show that diets that contain more unsaturated fats relative to saturated fats are associated with better health outcomes.

Coconut oil and athletic performance

A well-cited article has been referenced to support the idea that coconut oil improves athletic performance.  The study compared cyclists who drank either a glucose containing beverage or a glucose and medium chain fatty acid containing beverage.  The study’s authors concluded that the medium chain fatty acid beverage impaired performance.  (They did not say that it helped).    The authors also concluded that the medium chain fatty acid beverage caused stomach cramps.  The authors suggested that the cramps may have been what caused poor performance.  More study would be needed to see if cramps are indeed the culprit.  This doesn’t mean that having medium chain saturated fatty acids circulating in your blood will provide you with an advantage.   In fact the body seems to prefer unsaturated fatty acids for fuel (Raclot 1997).

Coconut oil and CrossFit Masters
CrossFit Masters Athletes sometimes eat coconut oil. These guys are really good.

Coconut oil and longevity

If you Google “Coconut Oil” and Longevity you will find about a half a million hits saying that coconut oil improves longevity.  If you do the same research in Web of Knowledge (a database of scientific publications) you will find seven hits.  Five are about insect pest control.  One is about plants.  One is about coconut oil increasing atherosclerosis in rabbits.

Other wonderful properties of coconut oil

Coconut oil seems to work pretty well as a conditioner for cast iron cookware.  Coconut oil is made of mostly medium chain fatty acids.  Coconut oil has a high smoke point.  This means it can be used for frying with less risk of burning.  Coconut oil is solid at room temperature.  (As long as the room isn’t too warm.)  Coconut oil makes good popcorn that is light and doesn’t have a burnt oil taste to it. Coconut oil is good for frying for the same reasons it makes good popcorn.   Some people like to use coconut oil as a moisturizer.

What makes coconut oil so special?

Coconut oil has been called a perfect food because someone called it a perfect food.  And they must have called it perfect with convincing authority.  Free of doubt.  Pretty free of logic.  And pretty much free of evidence.   Dr. Oz may have been involved.  Almost all of us respond to authority.  Authorities provide us with answers to our questions.  The desire and drive for answers is a powerful inborn trait.  This quality may be uniquely human.  It has helped us make tremendous advances in understanding and controlling our world.   Answers may be treasured once we have them in hand.  Because they are so treasured we sometimes hold onto them longer than we should.  Sometimes we hold and treasure answers that are wrong.  Or that are simply expressions of someone else’s wishful thinking.

I would have written about this earlier, but so many people were telling me coconut oil was healthy that I didn’t question it for quite some time.  Go figure.
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Raclot T, Langin D, Lafontan M, & Groscolas R (1997). Selective release of human adipocyte fatty acids according to molecular structure. The Biochemical journal, 324 ( Pt 3), 911-5 PMID: 9210416

Jeukendrup AE, Thielen JJ, Wagenmakers AJ, Brouns F, & Saris WH (1998). Effect of medium-chain triacylglycerol and carbohydrate ingestion during exercise on substrate utilization and subsequent cycling performance. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 67 (3), 397-404 PMID: 9497182

Clegg, M. (2010). Medium-chain triglycerides are advantageous in promoting weight loss although not beneficial to exercise performance International Journal of Food Sciences and Nutrition, 61 (7), 653-679 DOI: 10.3109/09637481003702114

Coconut oil and the search for the perfect diet.

Coconut oil is being promoted by some as a “perfect” food. This is common in the CrossFit and Paleo communities. Coconut oil is like animal fat in that it is high in saturated fat. Many paleo followers are told that a diet high in saturated fat is ideal for health. Coconut oil is easier for most people to tolerate than eating similar amounts of lard. What do we actually know about diets high in saturated vs. unsaturated fat?

Coconut oil, saturated fat, paleo diet expert
Buy into it or your head goes in the toilet

Diet, research and unsaturated fat.

Some studies have found that diets high in Omega-6 unsaturated fats may increase inflammation.  General inflammation is a marker for a number of chronic diseases.  Other studies have found that diets high in omega-6s may cause insulin resistance and increase risk of diabetes.  Also found is an association of omega-6s with poor blood cholesterol profiles.  Most of these studies have been done with animals.  Such as mice.Other studies have found that diets high in omega-6s reduce inflammation.  And improve cholesterol profiles.  Most of these studies were done in humans.  At present, we do not know what is best as far as omega-6s are concerned.  We are not discussing the role of Omega-3s here.  But they are important too.

Back to diet, coconut oil and saturated fat.

A new study in mice has found that a diet containing 12% saturated was worse in a number of ways.  (Compared to diets with 6% or 24% saturated fat).  A 12% saturated fat diet is typical for Americans.  A 12% saturated fat diet caused the most gain in body fat, the most insulin resistance, and the most inflammation.  Inspite of the fact that all animals got 40% of their calories from fat.  The take away here is, at least for mice, the type of fat consumed matters.  What about the low vs. high saturated fat mice?  The high saturated fat diet caused the lowest insulin resistance.  This might mean that a high saturated fat diet is better for avoiding diabetes.  But it also gave the highest total cholesterol/HDL cholesterol ratio.  A high total cholesterol/hdl cholesterol ratio is a risk factor for hypertension and cardiovascular disease.

Coconut oil and diet take away.

No one has all the answers.  There’s a lot we do not know.  And until we know more it would be best to be wary of people who claim that what they know is enough.
Enos RT, Davis JM, Velázquez KT, McClellan JL, Day SD, Carnevale KA, & Murphy EA (2013). Influence of dietary saturated fat content on adiposity, macrophage behavior, inflammation, and metabolism: composition matters. Journal of lipid research, 54 (1), 152-63 PMID: 23103474