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 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 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