Coconut oil is one of the richest sources of saturated fats in existence, with approximately 90% of the energy it contains derived solely from saturated fatty acids. Interestingly, it is actually for this reason that it was once demonized (quite unfairly, I might add) by many within the health community.
Saturated fat was long thought to be the root cause of a host of diet-related diseases, including heart disease.
Amazingly, there has been a host of recent research clearly demonstrating that the association between saturated fat and heart disease is not nearly as strong as once thought, with many even suggesting that consuming the right types of saturated fat will actually have a positive impact on the health of the body.
Such as coconut oil.
This has sparked a host of research looking the impact of coconut oil on health. And the results have been interesting, to say the least.
Why Coconut Oil, Specifically?
While we know that coconut oil is full to the brim of saturated fat, it is important to recognize that it is a really specific type of saturated fat, and that is what makes it of such interest to those within the health industry.
You see, whereas the fat in most foods is comprised of long chain fatty acids (or LCFAs for short), coconut oil is extremely rich in medium chain fatty acids (or MCFAs for short).
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MCFAs are a specific type of fatty acid that contain between 6 and 12 carbon atoms (LCFAs contain 12 to 21 carbon atoms). Because of the length of MCFA, once they are ingested they are rapidly broken down and absorbed into the body, where they are transported immediately to the liver.
Once at the liver, MCFAs can be immediately metabolized for energy, during which key compounds known as ketones are produced as a by-product.
This process is markedly different from that of LCFAs. The body digests LCFAs slowly and stores them in adipose tissue after consumption. And it is precisely this difference that may underpin the health benefits of coconut oil.
Can Coconut Oil Really Help You Lose Weight?
One of the most heavily advertised benefits of coconut oil is its suggested ability to enhance weight loss.
As the MCFAs found in coconut oil are metabolized immediately after consumption, once eaten they have been shown to cause an acute increase in metabolic rate. This ultimately means that the body begins to expend more energy than it normally would to maintain regular function.
Additionally, in conjunction with their unique effects on metabolic rate, the MCFAs found in coconut oil have also been shown to be extremely satiating – meaning they reduce hunger signals throughout the day after consumption. This has been further supported by research demonstrating that those individuals who supplement with high amounts of MCFAs tend to eat significantly fewer calories during the day than those who do not.
From a practical perspective, this means that by simply substituting traditional cooking oils and butters with coconut oil (thereby increasing your MCFA intake), you can blunt hunger and cause small increases in metabolic rate.
This may have the potential to decrease energy intake throughout the day, and therefore promote weight loss over time.
It is important to note that despite these effects, consuming more coconut oil does not ensure weight loss. While it may make it easier, to really lose weight you still need to consume less energy than you expend.
Is Coconut Oil Good for Your Heart?
Increasing the consumption of MCFA saturated fats by adding more coconut oil to the diet has been shown to cause significant increases in the levels of High Density Lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol in the blood, while causing a simultaneous decrease in blood levels of Low Density Lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol.
LDL cholesterol is the so-called ‘bad cholesterol’. This is because it directly contributes to the plaque that causes heart disease and raises blood pressure.
HDL cholesterol on the other hand, is ‘good cholesterol’. HDL cholesterol acts as a scavenger. It picks up LDL cholesterol in the blood and returns it to the liver.
Additionally, coconut oil has also been shown to contain a number of key antioxidants (polyphenols, for those nerds out there) that have been suggested to improve the function of the cardiovascular system. More specifically, they may be able to decrease oxidative stress in the cardiovascular system. This can reduce vascular stiffness, improve blood flow and lower blood pressure.
As both high blood pressure and a poor blood cholesterol profiles are known factors for an increased risk of heart disease, coconut oil may reduce the risk of developing heart disease.
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Is Coconut Oil Good for Dementia Patients?
As mentioned above, your body metabolizes MCFAs found in coconut oil to ketone bodies immediately after consumption.
Ketones are unique in that they can be broken down and used for energy by nerve cells in the brain – similar to the way glucose is but via a different pathway. Interestingly, studies suggest that the brain functions quite efficiently when using ketones for energy.
For this reason, researchers suspect that ketones can improve cognitive health and slow age-related declines in cognitive function.
Excitingly, these brain-boosting effects seem to be even more profound in those individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
People who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease appear to have difficulty using glucose for energy in specific areas of the brain. But not ketones. Their brains can still efficiently break down ketones for energy.
By making ketones readily available in the blood, coconut oil may offer a way to improve cognitive health and reduce the signs and symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Related: How Does Aging Affect Your Brain
How Much Coconut Oil Should You Have a Day?
Now you might be finding yourself wondering how much coconut oil you need to be consuming to actually see positive effects on your health. You will be happy to know that is, honestly, not much at all.
Most studies have found that simply adding 2 tablespoons (or 30ml) into your diet each day is enough to receive the positive health effects associated with consuming coconut oil. This amount of coconut oil provides you with approximately 18 grams of MCFAs per day, which appears to be around the ‘sweet spot’ for most people.
And as a bit of a bonus, coconut oil is extremely stable at high temperatures. As such, it should actually be quite easy to get your 30ml each day by using it in your cooking!
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Take Home Message
I certainly wouldn’t go as far as to suggest that coconut oil is a panacea for all your health-related problems. But there is certainly some research to suggest that its consumption may offer some specific health benefits.
Replacing butter and vegetable oils with coconut oil may promote weight loss, reduce blood pressure and improve blood cholesterol levels. All of these can contribute to the development of heart disease.
Additionally, adding coconut oil to the diet may stave off age-related declines in cognitive function. It may also boost the mental health of individuals suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.
Still have questions about the coconut oil that need answering? Let us know in the comments below, and we will get back to you ASAP.