In Defence of Coconut

I have always loved coconuts. As a child when I still ate sweets, my favorite cookie was a macaroon and my favorite candy bar was Almond Joy. When I quit sugar I switched to unsweetened coconut on fruit salad and coconut milk in Thai and Indian dishes. The food police however began to condemn coconut because its oil is highly saturated. Indeed, it is about 92% saturated fat. But saturated fats are not all alike and not all bad. Lauric acid comprises from 55% – 75% of the saturated fat found in coconut oil. Lauric acid has been found to stimulate thyroid function. Your thyroid is your metabolic thermostat. If it is working efficiently, you will burn calories better.  Coconut oil also contains lesser amounts of caprylic acid, and capric acid.  Both of these together with lauric acid are considered anti-microbial.

Coconut is also rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). Found in palm and palm kernel oil, butter as well as coconut, MCTs have shorter chains of fatty acids (about 12 – 15 molecules in length). Some studies have shown these fats help those with malabsorption syndrome because MCTs can be directly absorbed through the small intestine without the presence of bile. Premature infants and adults with compromised bowel function benefit from MCTs.

In studies with lab animals and obese individuals, those fed MCT’s had better insulin profiles, increased thermogenesis post meals and therefore less fat deposition. In another study, those who were allowed unlimited access to MCT’s had better appetite control and ate fewer calories than those on a low MCT diet. MCTs have only 8.3 calories per gram versus LCTs (long chain triglycerides) which have 9 calories per gram. Additionally, reduced chain length means that MCTs are more rapidly absorbed by the body and more quickly metabolized as fuel. This translates to fewer calories stored as fat. For this reason a number of athletes have incorporated them into their diets.

Coconut oil is designed to withstand tropical heat, so goes rancid very slowly. Additionally, it has a higher smoke point than most polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils.  Not that I encourage high heat cooking (I edited the “fry” word out of my cooking vocabulary many decades ago), but if you are going to cook with high heat, please pick an appropriate oil. Coconut, avocado, macadamia oil, high oleic sunflower and safflower oil and virgin or light olive oil all tolerate heat much better than most poly and mono unsaturated fats.

Bottom line: Enjoy coconut and coconut oil (extra virgin, cold pressed is best) as a part of a balanced and varied diet. After all, traditional diets around the world have included this wonderful food. Why shouldn’t you?

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