Curious About Coconuts
Photos:Sister & Co, The Groovy Food Co, Google
As with a lot of things in nature, not all fats are created equal
From doctors to gym bunnies, we all seem to have gone a bit crackers about coconut lately in all its forms, from coconut oil to coconut lattes and even coconut scented loo roll in Tesco. Yet it is strange to think of a fat as healthy. I’m curious, another food fad or a larder superhero?
Here’s what I’ve learned so far:
Not all fats are equal. There are some fats that are necessary for the body and, surprisingly, one of them is saturated fat. When I hear the word ‘saturated’ I think ‘bad’, but the war against saturated fat has been challenged recently for being based on ‘bad science’ that showed no proven association between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease.
Science now suggests natural [plant-based] saturated fats like coconut oil could actually be beneficial. The primary type of saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which raises LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels, whilst also increasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels dramatically. It seems you get a little good along with the bad. Confusing, I know, which is why the full benefits are still being debated.
Also, one cup of coconut oil contains around 1945 calories making it’s benefits for weight loss also arguable. That said, not all calories are equal either, with bad saturated fat-filled cakes/biscuits etc possessing a crucially different molecular structure to natural saturated fats, minus all the added healthy benefits.
Coconut oil has a large amount of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), a molecular structure the body is able to convert to energy more efficiently than it can bad fats. Without enough insulin, glucose builds up in the blood; the body is unable to use glucose for energy so it breaks down fat instead. This means it metabolises faster, releasing energy (calories) more quickly for the body to burn. All this takes place in the liver where MCFAs are converted into ketone bodies – water-soluble molecules that provide energy to your brain, muscles and kidneys. Coconut oil is also extremely supportive of the thyroid, which controls our metabolic rate and so helps boost your calorie-burning mechanism.
[Note: For a person with diabetes, ketone build up is often the result of prolonged high blood sugar and insulin deficiency. Without the right amount of insulin, glucose starts to build up in the blood stream and doesn’t enter the cells to be utilised – this can lead to a dangerous condition called Ketoacidosis Read More].
Ketones are utlised by the brain as energy. Though the exact cause is still not known, a toxic protein called beta-amyloid peptide is strongly implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. It is believed it begins destroying synapses before it clumps into plaques that lead to nerve cell death – hallmarks of Alzheimer’s.
(Source: Stanford University Medicine)
Among many possibilities being researched to understand and conquer this devastating disease, one suggestion is that the unique phenolic and hormones found within coconut oil may help prevent this clumping, but this is not yet proven.
Coconut water is extracted from young green coconuts and contains more potassium than bananas. It is extremely hydrating, low sodium and low sugar, making it a popular choice within the fitness community.
(Not to be confused with the higher fat coconut milk!)
Ketones again – they help build muscle mass
Studies have shown that ingesting MCFAs helps to keep us fuller for longer, indicating a hormonal response to trigger satiety. However, the precise hormone or mechanism for this has yet to be identified. What is known is that coconut oil is less likely to be stored as fat in your body because of its unique composition and conversion to energy via ketone transformation. It is believed that 1-2 tblsp of MCFA’s a day can help an active person burn an extra 120 cals per day. (Source: US National Library Of Medicine).
Coconut oil is also low GI which means it doesn’t cause the sugar spikes and crashes that see us reach for unhealthy sugary or salty snacks.
Coconut oil has a very high content of lauric acid (40-55%). Also found naturally in breast milk, lauric acid is converted into monolaurin, which has the capacity to destroy the protective lipid coating of most bacteria leaving them susceptible to destruction. This aids the body’s immunity, helping to fight viruses and diseases, and is particularly efficient as an anti-fungal.
Tumour cells need glucose in order to survive/thrive and cannot access the energy in ketones. Could this make the ketone effect a barrier against tumour growth?
And if this wasn’t enough, coconut oil has anti-inflammatory benefits, works well as a moisturiser and hair treatment, make-up remover, eyelash conditioner (who knew they even needed a conditioner?!), and of course cooking. It’s great for roasting, stir-frying, and baking because its high smoke point makes it ideal for cooking at high heats.
So, the available science seems to stack up, but what’s the difference between virgin and other types of coconut oil?
All oils go through a refining process so extract them from the source. Experts suggest avoiding the hydrogenated version, recommending virgin coconut oil instead as it’s the least refined. Hydrogenation refers to a chemical process of adding hydrogen to oil to create a solid form, resulting in an unnatural trans-fat that’s detrimental to our health;
Unsaturated fats have various wavy or zigzag forms (called “cis-” forms) that contribute to more flexible arteries and other body structures. Hydrogenated fats also have bent molecular shapes, but hydrogenated fats are bent in the mirror-opposite direction (which is why they are called “trans-” forms) of naturally occurring unsaturated fats. For this reason, hydrogenated fats are difficult for the body to “grab onto” and metabolize, and can neither be incorporated into cell structures nor excreted in the normal fashion. Thus, hydrogenated or “trans-” fats tend to remain “stuck” in blood circulation, becoming oxidized and most importantly, contributing significantly to an increased risk for cardiovascular disease and possibly also cancer. (Source: WHFoods.com)
The general consensus seems to be the same as with other good fats like avocados, consume in moderation. My go to happens to be from The Groovy Food Co. for cooking or Sister & Co. for beauty products (big fan of their sugar scrub).