Coconut oil coconut oil coconut oil! It's made its way up the food chain (of my life/diet?) in the past few months or so, and I'm here to explain why. You can thank both my absolute obsession with this oh-so-good for you oil - yes, this is a HEALTHY oil #mindblown - and my newfound passion for chemistry, biochemistry if you want more specificity.
What is coconut oil? (MCT oil)
Coconut oil is classified as a medium-chain triglyceride (which refers to the length of the fatty acid chain as it moves through and stores itself in our bodies). Many of the fats included in the American diet today are long-chain triglycerides, and the two of these function differently in our bodies:
- MCT's: on a chemical level, these fats are typically 6-12 carbon molecules long. Unlike long-chain triglycerides, MCTs are sent straight to the liver for oxidation, which decreases the amount of time and space they have to be stored in the body (aka adipose tissue).
- LCT's: on a chemical level, these fats are typically longer than 12 carbon molecules. These fats are sent through the lymphatic system before they reach the liver, allowing them more time and space to be taken up into adipose tissue.
So, what's the big deal?
Welllllllll, let me tell ya'. I've been researching like crazy for some actual primary sources on this topic, and finally found a study posted in the Journal of Nutrition - can you guess how excited I got? No, you can't. I got R E A L L Y excited :) anyway, enough about my inner nerdiness (also, how "inner" is a quality if everyone you know knows about it and considers it a main quality of yours?)
Please excuse my diversion. Let's dive in.
- Increased metabolism - the study found a 45+% increase in energy expenditure (aka calorie-burn, metabolism, whatever you want to call it) before and 6 hours after eating when participants consumed a meal containing about 30% MCT's. immediately after a meal, researchers observed a 16% increase in baseline calorie-burn for the MCT participants compared with only a 5% increase for the LCT participants. MCT's also showed a greater impact on the thermic effect of food (TEF, the amount of energy the body uses in digesting food) - an increase of 8% with MCT's compared to about 6% for LCT's.
- Decreased fat depots - these results aren't as concrete as the previous, but they are still noteworthy! animals trials show decreases in number and size of adipose (fat) cells, but researchers haven't found concrete evidence reflecting this in humans. however, they have concluded that the increased metabolism and potential decrease in number and size of adipose cells is typically greater in men than women.
- Increased satiety - from this study, researchers saw that men who replaced LCT's with MCT's in their diet over a period of 14 days consumed significantly less calories than the men whose diet was higher in LCT's than MCT's. similarly, body weights of men in the higher LCT group showed an increase in body weight, while the men in the higher MCT group showed a lower body weight after the 14-day experiment.
- Body weight management - the past three observations lead researchers to believe that MCT's can increase weight loss, but the evidence isn't set in stone. at most, they conclude an optimal weight loss of near 3 pounds per month with highest potential MCT effects and at the least, a weight loss of about 1 pound per month with minimal MCT effects. these suggestions can only be made for short-term circumstances, however.
Where/how do I use it?
Pretty much anywhere/in anything! I've always lovvvvved roasting veggies (sweet potatoes, especially) in coconut oil - nothing beats the smell of coconutty cinnamon + sea salt roasted sweet taters. I'm probably the newest (and maybe last) member on the coconut oil-coffee train, but hey, at least I'm here, right? For a while, I opted for unsaturated fats in cooking - sauteing, roasting, stir-frying, etc. - because the liquid quality made coating food much less of a hassle. But, seriously Haley, how hard is it to scoop a teaspoon of coconut oil onto the pan instead of spraying or drizzling olive oil? Not that hard.
I take the extra steps in cooking with coconut oil because it actually has a higher melting point than other oils like olive, avocado, safflower, etc. Coconut oil is a saturated fat, while olive, avocado, and safflower are unsaturated - the molecular structure of saturated fats keeps them stable at temperatures higher than that of unsaturated fats. When heated, saturated fats don't oxidize or become rancid as easily. Cooking with oxidized oils (oils that have been exposed to oxygen causing them to create dangerous molecular compounds) has been linked to higher rates of cancer and heart disease. Since coconut oil's saturated structure is stronger against the effects of oxidation, it's a much safer option to cook with.
Unrefined vs. refined?
Does anything refined ever win over it's unrefined counterpart? Not really, especially for coconut oil, according to Dr. Bruce Fife. Unrefined coconut oil doesn't undergo as much processing as the refined version, so the fatty acids and other important compounds remain intact and can carry out their function in the body much more efficiently. However, refined coconut oil does have a higher melting point than the unrefined version, so keep that in mind when cooking with whichever version you choose.
Of course, other oils like olive, avocado, grapeseed, and almond carry several health benefits and have certain properties that make them more suitable for certain cooking methods than coconut oil. Finding the right balance of dietary oil is essential is benefitting from the nutrients of each.
But, what about cholesterol levels?
Saturated fats DO increase cholesterol levels, but not all saturated fats are created equal, right? Similarly, two different types of cholesterol work in the body - HDL (high-density lipoprotein, the "good" cholesterol) and LDL (low-density lipoprotein, the "bad" cholesterol). Though saturated fats - coconut oil included - can increase the LDL levels, they also improve the quality of LDL cholesterol, while increasing HDL levels, too (information from Dr. Mark Hyman). All in all, coconut oil can't be blamed as the main contributor to dangerously high cholesterol levels because it simultaneously weakens the potential damage by LDL cholesterol, lowering triglyceride levels and improving overall lipid profiles.
Bottom line? Not all fat makes you fat. Not all calories are created equal. Whole-food, plant-based fats carry with them various heart-healthy, figure-friendly benefits and should not be limited in the diet. Fat promotes satiation, nutrient absorption (like vitamins A, D, E, and K), increased metabolic activity, and healthy body weight and composition.
Fear not the fat, my friends :)