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Q: What’s the deal with coconut oil? I see it everywhere, but I’m not sure why I need it or what to do with it.
—Ken S., Asheville, N.C.
A: Coconut oil is a really wonderful oil, and I recommend it highly. Coconut and coconut oil have been used as folk remedies to treat more than 35 ailments, from abscesses to wounds. Coconut oil also has substantial antioxidant power. And populations that consume coconuts as a regular part of their diets are rarely troubled by osteoporosis or heart disease.
You can use coconut oil exactly as you would any other fat—for cooking, sautéing, and even baking. Because it has a distinct taste, I sometimes like to mix it with butter (when scrambling eggs, for example), but I sometimes use it alone as well. It’s particularly good to use in sautés (and in baking) because it has a high smoke point (about 350°F) and a low degree of “oxidation” (which is what happens when fats are attacked by free radicals and turn rancid). Try using it in stir-fries. Some people like to throw a tablespoon into smoothies or shakes for extra creaminess. It’s delicious.
The fats in coconut oil are mainly what are known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). MCTs are a type of saturated fat, but the physiology and biochemistry of medium-chain triglycerides are different from their “long-chain” saturated fat cousins. For one thing, they are easier to metabolize. For another, they are preferentially used by the body for energy rather than stored as fat. And they are mainly composed of a fatty acid called lauric acid, which is antiviral and antimicrobial. According to the Physicians’ Desk Reference, preliminary evidence shows that MCTs may be helpful in some cancers and may have positive effects on immunity.
The fatty acids in coconut oil are powerful antibiotics. According to naturopath Bruce Fife, ND, who devoted a book to the subject, bacteria known to be killed by the MCTs in coconut oil include streptococcus (throat infections, pneumonia, sinusitis), staphylococcus (food poisoning, urinary tract infections), and Helicobacter pylori (stomach ulcers). In addition, there are at least a dozen pathogenic viruses shown to be inactivated by lauric acid. MCTs also kill candida and other fungi in the intestinal tract, which supports a healthy gut.
Scientists began taking notice of coconut oil back in the 1960s and ’70s, when it was observed that people of the Pacific Islands and Asia, whose diets are high in coconut oil, were surprisingly free from cardiovascular disease, cancer, and other degenerative diseases.
A long-term, multidisciplinary study was set up to examine the health of the people living in the small, idyllic coconut-eating islands of Tokelau and Pukapuka. Despite eating a “high-fat” diet—mostly
saturated fat from coconuts—the Pukapuka and Tokelau islanders were virtually free of atherosclerosis, heart disease, and colon cancer. Digestive problems were rare. The islanders were lean and healthy. There were no signs of kidney disease, and cholesterol problems were unknown. Yet when these native folks moved to the big cities and changed their diets, giving up coconut oil for the refined polyunsaturated vegetable oils that everyone thinks are healthier, their incidence of heart disease increased dramatically.
Much has been written about the possible benefits of coconut oil to the brain, specifically for Alzheimer’s disease. Most of the buzz was generated by the case of Steve Newport, a man who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and whose physician wife, Mary Newport, MD, decided to explore alternative ways to help him. Dr. Newport understood that Alzheimer’s is a kind of diabetes of the brain. (In fact, many researchers now refer to Alzheimer’s as “Type III Diabetes.”) The brain cells have trouble taking in sugar as fuel, and they eventually die. She learned that ketones—a by-product of fat metabolism—are a superb alternate fuel for the brain, and coconut oil can help generate ketones in the body. Dr. Newport began feeding her husband a couple of tablespoons of coconut oil every day, and within two weeks his test scores improved significantly. The story of his improvement has been documented in Newport’s book, Alzheimer’s Disease: What if There Was a Cure? While the idea of coconut oil as a ketone-generating treatment for restoring brain function is fascinating, much more research needs to be done. In the meantime, a daily dose of coconut oil used in cooking or added to food certainly, as my grandmother used to say, “couldn’t hurt!”
Saturated But Safe
Do you need to worry about the natural, healthy saturated fat in coconut oil? I don’t think so, and neither do many other experts. “Coconut oil has a neutral effect on blood cholesterol, even in situations where coconut oil is the sole source of fat,” said George Blackburn, MD, a Harvard Medical School researcher testifying at a congressional hearing about tropical oils back in 1988.
Mary Enig, PhD, one of the premier lipid biochemists in the United States and a former research associate at the University of Maryland, agrees. “These (tropical) oils have been consumed as a substantial part of the diet of many groups for thousands of years with absolutely no evidence of any harmful effects to the populations consuming them,” she says. Even C. Everett Koop, former surgeon general of the United States, called the tropical-oil scare “foolishness.”
I say any food that tastes delicious and can enhance the performance of your immune system at the same time deserves a place in the honor roll of healthy foods.