Thinking about coconut draws to mind images of a tropical beach, pina coladas and indulgence. Unfortunately, many health professionals hold to the idea that the saturated fat in coconut is unhealthy and intake should be minimized if not avoided. The Food and Drug Administration, American Medical Association and many other organizations recommend avoiding coconut due to high levels of saturated fat. Saturated fat is ‘believed’, by a majority of medical and health community members, to be associated with increased LDL cholesterol levels and the development of heart disease.
There is, however, another side to this story. Firstly, dietary saturated fat is not all bad – in fact a ‘mixed fat’, (saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated), diet heavy in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids is most effective in promoting an optimal LDL:HDL cholesterol ratio. Additionally, the type of saturated fat found in coconut is primarily medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). The Standard American Diet (SAD) is composed almost exclusively of long chain triglycerides (LCTs). MCTs are unique and beneficial in that they are easily digested, absorbed and converted to energy. This is not a new finding, in fact MCTs are major components in baby formulas, (and are also abundant in breast milk), tube feedings, and intravenous feedings (TPNs), used in hospitals to nourish and treat infants, critically ill patients, and individuals with malabsorption and gastrointestinal (GI) disorders.
The MCTs, like those found in coconut, are broken into medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs). Unlike LCFAs, the MCFAs are almost immediately absorbed by the intestines and shipped to the liver via the portal vein. Once in the liver they are burned as fuel, acting more like carbohydrate than fat. The advantages to this are numerous. First off, being a fat there is little to no insulin response elicited upon ingestion. Secondly, unlike other fats that require more extensive breakdown, MCFAs are shuttled almost immediately to the liver and are not converted to lipoproteins for transport and storage like other fatty acids. MCFAs are used for energy and are not, for the most part, stored as body fat.
The ability of MCTs to be quickly absorbed and converted to energy makes them an exceptional fuel source for athletes. When you fuel your vehicle with “premium” gasoline the result is a smoother ride and better gas mileage. Think of MCTs like “premium” fuel. Carbohydrate is quickly digested, but burns fast, like low grade fuel. Other fat sources, while energy dense, take a long time to be converted to a usable energy form, sort of like a diesel engine, lots of power – but not as efficient. MCTs on the other hand provide the best of both worlds in that they are quickly absorbed and converted to energy and they burn longer providing a more sustained energy than carbohydrate.
Coconut has been found to have numerous beneficial health effects due to its MCTs and overall nutrient properties. It is high in fiber and contains minerals such as potassium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus and zinc. Additionally, it is much lower in carbohydrate/sugar and contains more protein than other fruits. Reported health benefits range in everything from enhanced immune function, healing and athletic performance to reduced levels of inflammation, cancer protection, and many more. Most importantly – coconut tastes great!! As with all things though, moderation is key – and yes, it is possible to get too much of a good thing!
If you’re not asleep after reading this and would like to read more here are links to a couple of good research articles regarding coconut and atherosclerosis, MCTs and fat oxidation, and the effect of MCTs on serum lipoproteins and liver function.
Now, was that such a hard shell to crack?
photo credit: SingChan