By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
For years, coconuts were little more than Hollywood props used to hit unsuspecting characters on the head in exchange for cheap laughs.
As a food, coconut was mostly written off. It was too high in saturated fat, the experts said, and too likely to cause weight gain and heart disease.
That’s why it’s so good to see this superfood finally get the recognition it deserves. Linked to everything from acne to UTIs to cancer, coconut certainly isn’t the villain it was once thought to be. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
Coconut’s Healthy Secret: Medium-Chain Triglycerides
I’ll talk in more detail about some of coconut’s health benefits in a minute. But first let’s look at why the fat in coconut is so much healthier than other fats, despite being one of the most saturated fats.
To start, coconut is rich in medium-chain-triglycerides, or MCTs (you’ll also see them referred to as medium-chain fatty acids). MCTs are digested differently than the long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) found in butter, lard, fish oil, and common cooking oils, and they have different effects on the body.
Once absorbed in the digestive tract, MCTs travel directly to the liver where they’re rapidly metabolized into ketones and burned for energy. LCTs also end up in the liver—but they take a more circuitous route and are not as often burned as fuel. Instead, they’re either oxidized, turned into cholesterol, or repackaged as triglycerides and stored as fat.
In addition to MCTs, coconut contains healthy doses of caprylic, lauric, and capric acids. All three are active antimicrobials with the ability to kill viruses, fungi, and bacteria. They’re the reason coconut is often called out as an effective weapon against Staphylococcus aureus and Candida albicans.
3 Benefits of Coconut Consumption
Coconut’s health benefits are wide ranging. However, I want to focus on three that I consider particularly noteworthy—weight management, heart health, and brain health.
Coconut Benefit #1: Easier Weight Management
Unlike long-chain fatty acids, which can add to your waistline, coconut—and specifically coconut oil—has been shown to support weight loss by increasing metabolism and helping reduce belly fat.
Several studies have demonstrated that the consumption of moderate amounts of MCTs will help you burn more calories. In one trial, volunteers were given 15–30 grams of MCTs daily. Follow up showed that energy expenditure increased by roughly five percent for the 24 hours following consumption. What’s more, additional research shows that the more weight you have to lose, the more pronounced the effect can be!
A five percent increase doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up quickly.
Let’s use a 50-year-old woman who’s 5-feet-4 inches tall and weighs 165 pounds (the national average for a woman) as an example. Using an online basal metabolic rate calculator, she burns a minimum of about 1,438 calories a day. Five percent of that is 72 calories a day. Multiplied by 30, that’s 2,160 calories in a month—all burned simply as the result of consuming coconut oil!
Even better than coconut oil’s ability to increase metabolism is its ability to help you lose the most dangerous and kind of weight—belly fat.
In a randomized, double-blind clinical study, 40 women between the ages of 20 and 40, all of whom had excess belly fat, were divided into two groups. For 12 weeks, one group was given a daily supplement of coconut oil, and the other was given a supplement of soybean oil. Both groups were asked to follow a low-calorie diet and to walk for 50 minutes every day. At the conclusion of the study, both groups had improved their body composition—but the women who took coconut oil lost inches off their waists while those in the soybean oil group did not.
Coconut Benefit #2: Anti-Inflammatory Cardio Protection
There’s a lot of science supporting coconut’s heart health benefits, including evidence that it can raise protective HDL cholesterol and lower triglycerides. Results around its effect on LDL cholesterol are a little more mixed, but remember—when it comes to blood lipids, it’s your ratio of triglycerides to HDL that’s most important. And coconut oil moves both of those numbers in the right direction.
Another health benefit of coconut oil is that it can help tamp down inflammation.
This occurs in several ways. One animal study found that coconut oil not only inhibited inflammatory mediators, but also reduced CRP and increased the level of antioxidants in the blood. A separate, human trial demonstrated that the oil was able to prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol.
But coconut’s anti-inflammatory properties don’t stop there. A Chinese study found that the MCTs in coconut oil can also enhance insulin sensitivity. Excess insulin, of course, is highly inflammatory.
Forty men participated in the trial. They were divided into two groups, one of which was given MCTs for 90 days. The other group received LTCs. At the end of the study period, the men in the MCT category showed improvements across all measurements, including their insulin levels.
Coconut Benefit #3: Better Cognition, Memory, and Brain Health
Although there’s less research into the benefits of coconut and MCTs for brain health, it’s worth a mention because of its connection to Alzheimer’s disease.
In patients afflicted with this neurogenerative disorder, the brain gradually loses its ability to metabolize glucose—which unfortunately is its primary fuel source. The link to coconut comes via its MCTs and the ketones they’re converted into.
In addition to being a quick source of energy for the liver, ketones have the ability to pass through the blood-brain barrier and can be burned by the brain as an alternative energy source. Research shows that supplementation with MCTs, such as those found in coconut oil, have beneficial treatment effects on patients with mild to moderate forms of the disease.
Unfortunately, there haven’t been any controlled studies specifically using coconut oil. But anecdotal evidence offers hope.
Some time ago, I attended a medical conference where I became acquainted with Mary Newport. She is a doctor near Tampa, Florida, who was using the MCTs in coconut oil to treat her husband’s early onset Alzheimer’s.
Newport began doing so based on the work of Theodore VanItallie, M.D., a professor emeritus at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. Vanitallie had been researching ketones.
Within a week, Newport saw her husband’s mood and thought processes improve. Those improvements, along with others, continued for several months.
Again, this story is purely anecdotal (read more about it). But it offers hope for one of our worst degenerative diseases.
Reap Coconut’s Health Benefits by Adding It to Your Health Regimen
Most of the research I’ve cited here used coconut oil for testing purposes. However, coconut can be consumed in several ways—which means it’s easy to up your intake.
Here are a few recommendations for each of its forms:
As oil: Coconut oil may be my favorite oil for cooking because it’s stable at high temperatures. Just be sure that it doesn’t begin to smoke, since that’s the tipping point when it begins to oxidize. Coconut oil also makes a flavorful topping for steamed vegetables or popcorn, is great mixed into hot cereals, or (if the temperature is at least 75 degrees) it can be combined with olive oil and drizzled over a salad. If you’d prefer to eat it straight out of the jar, that’s okay too. Use up to a tablespoon, two or three times a day, to realize maximum benefits. Coconut oil can be purchased as a supplement, as well.
As milk or water: Coconut water, especially, is a rich source of potassium. I like to use both to make shakes and smoothies. Coconut milk is a healthy alternative to cow’s milk; pour it over cereal or your favorite fruit. I also like to bake fish in coconut milk because it keeps it moist and adds a lot of flavor. I use coconut milk sold in the cartons, not the cans (which is more for certain soups, and stir fry and curry sauces), though some people do use canned coconut milk in smoothies, and even coffee.
As meat: Shredded or flaked (unsweetened) coconut is a great addition to salads, yogurt, snacks or salads. If you like trail mix and granola, try adding a few pinches of coconut.
Look for coconut products and supplements at your health food store. As always, prioritize organic varieties. If you have the luxury of choosing from many products, opt for those made from unrefined virgin coconut. They’re generally the least processed and most likely to have the highest concentrations of beneficial nutrients.
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