On Coconut Oil

Although many types of vegetable oils i.e. safflower, olive, canola, etc. have long occupied the kitchen shelves of various households, coconut oil (specifically the extra virgin, cold-pressed variety) is a relatively new addition to the growing family. In fact, its dietary use (as a cooking oil) has raised questions and sparked health debates among both healthcare professionals and laymen alike. In order to fully weigh the benefits of using coconut oil, it is helpful to first review the basics of lipid metabolism/utilization in our body.

 

FATS (aka LIPIDS)

Dietary lipids, when properly digested, provide our body with fatty acid constituents; this breakdown process is somewhat analogous to how carbohydrates & proteins are metabolized into sugar molecules & amino acids, respectively. And just like glucose and amino acids, fatty acids are utilized as an energy source (first as Acetyl-CoA, which then initiates a lengthy cascade of energy production), energy storage (triglycerides), and cholesterol-derived precursors to various signaling molecules in our body including steroids/hormones. Worth noting is that Vitamin D, a fat-soluble nutrient, functions biologically as a hormone; it can be supplied through dietary intake, supplementation, as well as de novo synthesis (through sunlight exposure). Fatty acids also serve as precursors to phospholipids, a group of biological compounds critical for the structural integrity and health of different cell membranes found in various parts of the human body including our brain, nerve and lung tissues.

Many of us have witnessed (or, worse yet, unwittingly tasted) rancid foods. Besides being responsible for food deterioration (due to an oxidative process termed lipid peroxidation), certain types of fats can further predispose the human body to increased risk of cancers, inflammatory conditions, atherosclerotic heart disease, and premature/accelerated aging. Most saturated fats and many polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) fall into this category of "bad" fats. The remaining types of PUFAs, on the other hand, are important dietary precursors of another group of lipid-containing compounds known as prostaglandins, which modulate the inflammatory responses in the body during periods of stress or illness. Omega 3 and Omega 6 are dietary Essential Fatty Acids that give rise to these different prostaglandins in the body; they are needed in a very specific ratio (~1:4 in the body, and 1:1 in the brain) for optimal cell functioning. The typical U.S. dietary ratio is 1:20; excess Omega 6 is thus detrimental to cell functioning and thus to our health. Good sources of Omega 3 include fish and flax seed oil.

 

COCONUT OIL

Coconut oil, in a class all its own, is predominantly a saturated fat. Although this may seem alarming, not all saturated fats are harmful to our health. Coconut oil is unique as it consists primarily of medium-chained fatty acids aka MUFAs (shorter than 12 carbons), which are more readily assimilated into the body, as they bypass a key metabolic step found in the transport of long-chained fatty acids. This makes coconut oil an appropriate dietary choice for many active individuals including athletes, as well as for individuals suffering from gastrointestinal fat malabsorption.

Other health benefits of coconut oil:

One caveat on coconut oil:

All dietary fats are calorically dense, and coconut oil is no exception. Every tablespoon of coconut oil contains roughly 13 grams of fat. Therefore, the health benefits of coconut oil need to be balanced with moderate consumption. Also, be sure to consume only the extra virgin cold-pressed variety to ensure the high quality of its content.