Why the Most Saturated Fat On The Planet Is Healthy
So what is the true story behind coconut oil? Is this stuff healthy or not? I
am going to discuss why despite being the most saturated fat on the planet, coconut oil is
still healthy. Let’s put some of the pieces together by first establishing the biochemical
foundation of what we are dealing with.
WARNING: some of this is going to get science-y but just skip to the translation if the science bores you…
If you look at the Fig. 1 you will see that coconut oil is made up of about 91% saturated fat. In comparison, butter the next highest is 68% saturated fat. So why is coconut oil healthy? It has to do with the fact that 65% of coconut oil is made up of medium chain fatty acids (fatty acids who have a carbon chain length of 6-12). These are also commonly called MCT’s (medium chain triglycerides).
Translation: Coconut oil is a rich source of medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s).
So what is a triglyceride? Triglycerides are your dietary fat made up of a glycerol backbone with 3 fatty acid chains. These chains can be short, medium, long, or very long depending on how many carbons are in the chain. So triglycerides essential are the fat you eat that gets broken down into it’s component parts so that it can be absorbed. The next graphic (Fig. 2) shows that medium chain triglycerides get absorbed directly through the enterocyte (intestinal cell) and into the blood stream. They then go directly through the hepatic portal vein to the liver for processing. The liver processes most blood borne nutrients and when fats are broken down the short chain fatty acids, medium chain fatty acids, and glycerol are all absorbed in this manner. It is a much longer and complex process for long and very long chain fatty acids. They take quite the detour on their way into the blood.
Translation: Medium chain triglycerides are easily more absorbed and more readily usable in comparison to longer chain fatty acids.
The last graphic (Fig. 3) shows how we transport and oxidize the fatty acids to be used in energy systems. You will see that the medium chain fatty acids pass directly into the mitochondria(an energy producing organelle) without the need of the carnitine cycle (an addition step required by long chain fatty acids). It can also directly enter into something called beta-oxidation. This degrades the fatty acids to something called acetyl-CoA. Acetyl-CoA can then be used in the Kreb’s cycle to generate your cellular source of energy called ATP. This then leads to another process that happens in the mitochondria where we generate a large percent of our total ATP (cellular energy) called Oxidative Phosphorylation.
Translation: We can transport and utilize the medium chain fatty acids directly (without additional steps) to begin producing energy.
There is more to the whole process but it is clear that the high medium chain fatty acid content of coconut oil separates it from the rest of the other saturated fatty acids. Research has shown that it does not seem to affect blood cholesterol in the same manner as other saturated fatty acids. Most saturated fats ingested in excess will raise your total cholesterol and raise your LDL (Low Density Lipoprotein) known as your “Bad Cholesterol”. Saturated fats are not all bad, they can just negatively impact your cholesterol if ingested in high amounts.
So what are some other specific health benefits?
It may help to decrease inflammation. This is evidenced by animal studies but requires more evidence from human trials.
It exceeds other oils in weight loss. Studies have shown an increase in weight loss as well as a decrease in waist circumference when compared to soybean oil. It has also shown greater weight loss in obese individuals in several studies when compared to long chain fatty acid ingestion.
When used topically it decreases skin dryness and increases skin moisture similarly to mineral oil.
When used on the scalp, it directly penetrates hair follicles and shows a protective affect from physical damage to the hair.
It can improve the ratio of HDL (good cholesterol) to LDL (bad cholesterol). While it has an effect of raising both it raises HDL, the cardioprotective lipoprotein, to a greater degree.
You can cook with it at higher temperatures because it is more than 90% saturated fat, which is very resistant to spoilage. The higher the saturation of the fat the less likely it is to become rancid.
So while coconut oil is a healthy choice of fat for your diet it should not be the only fat you consume. My two favorite additional choices of fat are olive oil and avocado oil. While they do not have the same resistance to rancidity as coconut oil, they have a more beneficial effect on blood cholesterol. They are monounsaturated fats that lower total cholesterol, lower LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and raise HDL (“good cholesterol”). But that’s a story and and oil or two for another article. Stay healthy and stay strong!
(1), (2) Whitney, Ellie & Rolfes, Sharon Rady (2013). Understanding Nutrition 13th Ed. Wadsworth, Cengage Learning (3) Lord, Richard S. & Bralley, J. Alexander (2008). Laboratory Evaluations for Integrative and Functional Medicine 2nd Ed. Metametrix Institute.
Dr. Tony Lamanna has his Doctorate in Chiropractic Medicine, a Masters in Human Nutrition, and teaches college Anatomy & Physiology and Nutrition. He has 4 different Olympic Weightlifting certifications including USAW Advanced Sports Performance Coach, a powerlifting certification (USAPL), and is a Corrective Exercise Specialist (NASM). Dr. Tony is also a US National kettlebell champion in the kettlebell clean & jerk, national silver medalist in the kettlebell snatch (IKLF), and a World silver medalist in the kettlebell clean & jerk (IKLF), as well as holding several AZ state records in Powerlifting (USAPL).