Coconut Oil- described as a super food, a fat that is saturated that is good for you, will help you lose weight, and cure what needs curing. It’s everywhere – add the oil to coffee, or drink the coconut water. Before going down the path of what this “miracle” “superfood” is – a bit of simple chemistry. Besides the amount of hydrogen atoms (saturated, monounsaturated, polysaturated) fats are also described by how long the molecule is. Those described as “medium chain” are not commonly found in nature, but one of them is the “magic” coconut. Most of the saturated fats that people consume are long-chain (meats, eggs, poultry).
People are putting these medium chain triglycerides (MCT) or fatty acids in everything like coffee – stating that they just think better when they use this. As a coffee drinker I can assure you that it has none of the flavor of pure cream, a bit less mouth feel, and the coffee perks me up far more than the fat ever would.
While the debate rages on about how saturated fat may raise serum LDL, that may not or may not lead to more heart disease, coconut oil does cause a rise in the HDL level. The issue isn’t changing from when substituting coconut oil with sunflower oil, the HDL levels looked better, there was not a change in the size of the arterial plaques. Nor did the plaques have substantially different makeups of fatty acids. So in spite of a small rise in the HDL level, there is no evidence that coconut oil will make your heart better. Much like with fish oil- the HDL may rise, but it does not translate to less heart or vascular issues.
And while people love to point to the beautiful shores of ancient Hawaii and beyond, where heart disease is low and they eat lots of coconut – what we cannot discern is the true level of cardiac disease, the influence of a primarily pescatarian society (fish eaters) and the genetics involved. It is too simplistic to state that eating coconut is a magic bullet – but it probably is not.
Weight loss studies done with medium chain triglycerides show no real difference in weight loss (half a kilogram at best) and that was in good studies where the long chain fatty acids were replaced with medium chain fatty acids. Suffice to say – the evidence does not point to spectacular results. People point to studies showing people eating less if they have some of the MCT’s at breakfast (I assume in the coffee that they destroyed the flavor of with this) – but those results don’t hold up in the long term.
Then there is the brain function – that by increasing ketones there is an alternative pathway for the brain to have something besides glucose. So those cells that cannot uptake it should, and maybe they will work better. Providing a damaged cell with energy does not mean that the person will think better, or that the mysterious proteins that have misfolded will fold back. Sadly coconut oil neither prevents Alzheimer’s disease nor arrests its development.
Then there is the “anti viral” and “anti bacterial” effect. Sadly – this does not translate when you digest it. Coconut oil is completely digested so any effect it had is gone once it leaves the gut. Still, such claims are repeated time and again.
Medium chain triglycerides are taken up differently than long-chain fatty acids, they are more easily absorbed, and in patients with short gut syndrome or guts that don’t work well we use these as an energy source. They can cause a bit of diarrhea, dyspepsia, and increased flatulence as colonic bacteria eat the unabsorbed MCT.
So for cooking- I think I will stick with olive oil, or grapeseed oil for its higher smoke point.
Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity.Assunção ML, Ferreira HS, dos Santos AF, Cabral CR Jr, Florêncio TM. Lipids. 2009 Jul;44(7):593-601. PMID:19437058
Composition of plasma and atheromatous plaque among coronary artery disease subjects consuming coconut oil or sunflower oil as the cooking medium.Palazhy S, Kamath P, Rajesh PC, Vaidyanathan K, Nair SK, Vasudevan DM. J Am Coll Nutr. 2012 Dec;31(6):392-6.PMID: 23756582
Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and received his MD. Dr. Simpson, a renowned weight loss surgeon, is a leading advocate of culinary medicine. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit www.terrysimpson.com.