It’s more than a food fight. Hidden agendas, the media and politics could actually hurt you.
The coconut is sort of an enigma in the world of botany. It’s really a fruit, seed and nut all wrapped into something botanists call a drupe. Regardless of its classification, coconut is a great plant food — a highly effective functional food containing various vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and a group of healthy, medium-chain triglycerides (fatty acids) referred to as MCTs.
Humans have consumed coconuts for thousands of years, with modern research long showing body-wide health and fitness benefits.
But don’t just blindly add it to your diet.
Used properly, the fat in coconut, the highest food source of dietary MCTs, can be a good fat, helping fuel the brain’s ongoing development, behavior and to treat problems such as seizures, cognitive dysfunction and other neurological issues like Alzheimer’s. Added benefits include improved metabolism of cholesterol and triglycerides, prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease and cancer, weight loss and increased fat-burning.
These benefits should be prefaced by the word potential. One cannot just gobble down the many unhealthy versions of coconut concoctions — sugary coconut candies, macaroons and drinks, refined coconut oil, and other coconut junk foods. Even those labeled organic can obviously counter the value of healthy coconut oil. Doing this also adds more calories, one key reason for the anti-coconut oil cries.
The coconut oil-containing MCTs is one way these benefits are realized. Specifically, the ability to increase ketone bodies, which our bodies can use for energy, especially in the brain. MCTs are quickly metabolized for energy in the liver rather than going into fat storage. Healthy dairy fats also contain MCTs, in lesser amounts, as does breast milk.
Among the reported benefits of coconut oil are its anti-oxidative, anti-inflammatory and anti-stress properties. One particular MCT, lauric acid, also has anti-microbial properties, killing harmful bacteria and viruses.
Unfortunately, the media has a tougher time classifying coconut than botanists and food scientists.
Perhaps the main reason many claim the oil is unhealthy is the old notion that lumps all saturated fat into the bad category, despite the fact that MCTs are very important for health. As a leftover from the anti-fat days, unhealthy aspects of saturated fat were blamed on their long-chain fatty acid content, although today, research has also moved away from associating all saturated fats with poor health. Unlike all unsaturated oils, coconut is mostly saturated, giving it a long shelf life, not requiring refrigeration, and the ability to cook with it without danger.
Of course, the media loves hype, confusion and controversy, and as coconut oil has risen in popularity, more reports appear about its so-called dangers. Recycled old news includes the myth that saturated fat is bad no matter what and attracts more readers.
Much of the coconut conspiracy is the long-standing trash talk instigated by competing polyunsaturated omega-6 vegetable oils, part of a $100 billion industry. It’s a decades-old outdated story used to sell very unhealthy oils — those that feed the disease-producing metabolism driving inflammation and oxidative stress. These include corn, safflower, rapeseed (canola), peanut, soy, sesame and cottonseed oils.
As coconut cuts into the profits of competitors, conspiracies are not the only fallout. Just like the tobacco and sugar industries, the popularity of omega-6 vegetable oils, known for 50 years to be harmful, is finally a message getting to more health-conscious consumers, steering them to better choices.
While naturally-occurring MCTs are highest in coconut oil, processing it through fractionation has spawned many MCT products.
The worst coconut oil is the refined types. They include those that are bleached, dry milled, and those with added ingredients (like partially hydrogenated fats). Look for unrefined, virgin or pure coconut oils, which are usually raw. Choosing certified organic may be the best choice.
The use of dietary supplements containing concentrated amounts of MCTs has also grown in popularity, as a way to increase ketones. Again, taking this product while eating junk food would be wasteful and wouldn’t work. And, it’s important to know that most of the time, a healthy very-low carbohydrate eating pattern will increase ketone production very well. But if urine or blood tests reveal too little ketones, you need to consider other things before adding an MCT supplement.
If you’re unable to produce adequate ketones when dietary goals include being in ketosis, or during the Keto Two-Week Test, consider first that your carbohydrate intake may not be low enough — or as low as you think. This is the most common reason for low ketones. It doesn’t take much carbohydrate to increase insulin, which quickly reduces ketones.
Typically, consuming 50 grams of carbohydrates a day usually is adequate — this amount from natural food might include 20 grams of non-absorbable carbohydrate (listed as fiber on food labels). Other reasons could include:
- Many low-carb foods and keto diets contain a lot of highly processed foods, and should be avoided. Eat only natural, healthy foods that include enough protein, plant foods and fats.
- Alcohol consumption may be too high; for some people even small amounts can effect liver function, where MCTs are metabolized.
- Other causes of liver dysfunction should be ruled out (typically by your health practitioner through simple blood tests).
- Various other lifestyle factors could impair metabolism to reduce fat-burning and ketone levels including overtraining, inadequate sleep, increase stress and medications.
- Combinations of one or more of the above can exist.
As a natural healthy food, coconuts have many uses. The struggle of extracting the liquid and opening a fresh coconut is worth the delicious experience. Of course, coconut oil is great for cooking, but even better raw when added to Phil’s Bars, smoothies and fat-burning coffee. In addition, pure coconut liquid, called milk, is available canned, and great in many recipes. Coconut fiber is useful as a dietary supplement if needed, and can sometimes be used in recipes to replace wheat or other flour. (During World War II and in Vietnam, coconut liquid was used when IV solutions were in short supply — don’t try this at home.)
I don’t see the value of the recent hyped-up product called coconut water.
There’s a simple answer to what appears to be a ferocious food fight between the coconut-debate factions. As part of a healthy diet, does eating it improve health and fitness? This is easily answered, not only by how you feel, but especially through simple, objective measures such as laboratory assessment (especially fasting triglycerides and HDL, HbA1c, and blood sugar), the MAF Test (a measure of fitness performance), and especially evaluating body fat.
Marten B, et al. Medium-chain triglycerides. Int Dairy J 2006;16. doi: 10.1016/j.idairyj.2006.06.015.
Pulsifer MB, et al. Effects of ketogenic diet on development and behavior: preliminary report of a prospective study. Dev Med Child Neurol. 2001; 43(5). doi: 10.1111/j.1469-8749.2001.tb00209.x.