This article was medically reviewed by Natalie Butler, RDN, LD.
The key benefit of coconuts is found in its oil. Coconut oil is extracted from the meat and kernel of the fully-grown coconut. The oil is primarily made up of fat. Ninety percent of that fat is saturated, six percent is unsaturated and three percent is polyunsaturated.
As a result of the high fat content, coconut oil got a reputation as an unhealthy fat. In contrast to other fatty food products which contain large amounts of saturated and unsaturated fats, the main constituents, more than 60 percent, of coconut oil are medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), also known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCFAs are shorter chains of fatty acids and can be easily broken down and converted into energy. In this respect, they act in a similar way to glucose, but with the benefit that they do not raise insulin levels.These MCFA’s have been shown to provide a number of health benefits, including fighting inflammation, and boosting the metabolism.Coconut oil owes a lot of its potency to a fatty acid called lauric acid. Lauric acid is recognized for its antimicrobial properties which boost the immune system. Almost half of the fatty acids in coconut oil are made up of lauric acid.When it enters the body, lauric acid is converted into a compound known as monolaurin, which has medicinal uses for several health conditions.
The medium chain fatty acids within coconut oil are unique in that they do not require digestion by the intestines. Rather, they go directly to the liver to be converted into energy. That makes MCFAs a superior form of energy. Unlike glucose they do not lead to an increase of insulin release which triggers a process that can lead to fat storage.
Research has shown that the simple act of replacing oils containing long chain fatty acids (such as soybean, sunflower and safflower oils) with those that are made up of medium chain fatty acids result in a significant increase in fat loss. An interesting side-note here is that medium chain fatty acids, such as those found in coconut oil, are particularly good at helping people to lose visceral body fat. [source] This is the fat that accumulates in the abdominal cavity. It is known as active fat because it has the ability to actively increase the risk of serious health problems. MCTs may also increase metabolic rate. [source]
In a study that was published in the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders in 2000, participants consuming MCT’s verses beef tallow experienced more weight loss and fat oxidation.A 2010 study investigated the effects of replacing olive oil, which contains long chain fats, with coconut oil, which contains medium-chain fats. The results after 16 weeks showed that the MCT group lost significantly more weight and body fat.[source]
It has been a long-held belief that all saturated fats, including coconut oil, are detrimental to heart health. Closer scrutiny through recent research, however, has revealed that the medium chain fats in coconut oil raise good HDL cholesterol. Some studies show coconut may increase LDL, whereas other studies show coconut oil may protect heart health by lowering the inflammatory marker, C-reactive protein. [source]
In addition to lauric acid, there are two other key acids in coconut oil which boost your immunity. They are capric acid and caprylic acid. Lauric acid is the star of the trio, having potent anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. When ingested, lauric acid converts to monolaurin. This compound has been shown by research studies to help fight the bacteria and viruses associated with digestive infections (like those from Clostridium dificile and Helicobacter pylori), respiratory infections from Staphylococcus aureus and oral bacterial infections. [source] [source]
Monolaurin has also been found to counter the harmful effects of listeria-monocytogenes, a common food-borne pathogen. [source]
Promotes Hair Health
Coconut oil acts as a natural moisturizer and has been shown to reduce protein loss in both damaged and healthy hair. The lauric acid content as well as its low molecular weight makes coconut oil unique in its ability to easily access the hair shaft and provide benefits.
Protective Against Cancer
When your liver processes the fats in coconut oil, ketones are produced. Cancer cells are not able to get into ketones in order to access their energy reserves. That is why a ketone enhancing diet will be beneficial in cancer recovery. A cancer fighting benefit of consuming coconut oil is that medium-chain fatty acids have been shown to eradicate the Heliobacter pylori bacteria which has been linked to gastric cancer. [source] Research also shows lauric acid to slow tumor growth, as well as induce death in breast and endometrial cancer cells. [source]
Coconut oil has also been seen to reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and improve quality of life in those undergoing breast cancer treatment.[source]
Coconut oil’s benefits for the human body are only just beginning to be realized. As research into this superfood continues, more uses and applications are bound to be supported with evidence. Getting into the regular habit of consuming coconut, in all forms, as well as medium-chain triglycerides in the form of MCT oil is, therefore, one of the best things that you can do for your overall health and well-being.
Coconut Nutritional Information
Serving Size: 100g
Kilojoules 1741 kj
Calories 416 kcal
Protein 15.55 g
Fat 14.99 g
Saturated Fat 2.218 g
Polyunsaturated Fat 6.24 g
Monounsaturated Fat 5.606 g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Carbohydrate 58.82 g
Fiber 6.2 g
Potassium 755 mg