Who would have thought that this simple oil would be the subject of such heated debate? There are a growing number of people and health professionals who are promoting it as a superfood that can help to heal the body and protect us from disease. Then, there are those who feel it could be just as harmful as saturated fat from animals - causing and perpetuating illness. Which side is right? I realise that this is a sensitive topic and my intention, with this post, is to present the facts about coconut oil so that you can decide, for yourself whether it is ok, or not, to include in your MS diet.
People often ask me why I have included coconut oil in some of my recipes when it is so clearly stated to be a harmful saturated fat, by Dr Swank. With other fats it's pretty clear which ones to embrace and which ones to steer clear of. We all know that saturated fat from animal meat and dairy is an absolute no no. We also know that trans fats from margarine is like eating poison. Then we know that extra virgin olive oil and flaxseed oil are amazing for our MS symptoms! Flaxseed oil has actually been shown to be even more effective than medication for reducing relapses. Thank you Prof. Jelinek for this amazing discovery!
A Grey Area
However, we then enter murky waters and discover the grey area of coconut oil. The problem is that Dr Swank, who is the authority on all things MS diet, has put coconut oil into the same category as saturated fats from animals. I'm not saying that he was wrong to do this because at the time that he was conducting his research, little was known about the health benefits of coconut oil. It is a saturated fat and so was thought to have the same harmful effects as saturated fats from animals. It is only recently that researchers have begun realise that it behaves very differently in the body to animal saturated fats. They have also discovered its benefits for keeping hearts healthy and providing a healthy source of energy for the body that does not involve a rise in blood sugar levels.
To explore this area in a little more depth, we need to distinguish between the two types of cholesterol. One will cause problems in our body and the other helps the body to function more effectively.
Good and Bad Cholesterol - There is a Difference
When we talk about cholesterol, we are referring to blood cholesterol. Cholesterol is made in the liver from the fats we consume and is not actually bad, at the right levels. It helps to build your body’s cells, amongst other important functions. Without it, your cells would not be able to do everything they need to do to keep you healthy. However if your body has more cholesterol than it needs, the excess keeps circulating in your blood. Over time, circulating, bad, cholesterol can enter your blood vessel walls and start to build up under the vessel lining. Bad cholesterol also makes cell walls more rigid which means they will experience degeneration quicker.
There are two types of cholesterol:
- Low-density lipoprotein (LDL): This is manufactured from, primarily, animal fats such as meat and dairy. Aka, the Bad one!
- High-density lipoprotein (HDL): This is manufactured from fats such as flaxseed oil, nuts, fish and yes, coconut oil. Aka, the Good one!
Some medical experts postulate that HDL actually carries LDL cholesterol away from the arteries and back to the liver, where it is passed from the body. Furthermore, some researchers believe that HDL removes excess cholesterol from arterial plaque, slowing its buildup. Obviously we need many more research studies to back up these claims but it does seem promising.
It seems that cholesterol, in itself, is not actually the bad guy. Getting enough of the right type of cholesterol is actually very important for our health - our nerve health, in particular. Our bodies are very clever at distinguishing between helpful and unhelpful cholesterol and will use the good cholesterol for energy and healing. Note, again that coconut oil results in the formation of good cholesterol.
Exploring the Benefits of Coconut Oil
I know how sensitive this topic is and so I'm going to tread very carefully on this unstable ground and provide you with a few reasons why I feel coconut oil shouldn't be completely excluded from your MS diet. I agree that too much of any fat can potentially cause problems but then we all know that too much of the healthiest nutrients can also have detrimental effects on the body. For instance, vitamin D in high doses is potentially toxic but that doesn't mean we should avoid taking it altogether. We know how vital it is to our recovery. Let's explore why cold-pressed, virgin coconut oil in small doses, could actually contribute to healing.
Virgin coconut oil is largely composed of Medium Chain Fatty Acids. MCFAs are metabolised differently to other fats. They are easily digested, easily broken down and immediately converted to energy. So, they don't hang around long enough to be pasted onto artery walls. They permeate cell membranes easily which also allows them to be utilised quickly. The body loves the energy they produce and uses them quickly.
In contrast, long chain fatty acids (from animals) have a completely different structure. They are difficult to break down and digest. The body doesn't quite know what to do with them and they are stored as fat. Some of these fats are transformed into bad cholesterol which is then deposited onto artery walls. They also make the cell membranes hard and inflexible. This is when they start to cause inflammation and MS symptoms.
Boosts Metabolism & Weight Loss
The MCFAs in coconut oil can actually help to stimulate your body's metabolism.They have been shown to increase 24 hour energy expenditure by as much as 5%, potentially leading to significant weight loss over the long term. MCFAs are sent directly to your liver, where they are immediately converted into energy rather than being stored as fat.
Researchers have done multiple studies on Pacific Island populations, who get 30-60% of their total caloric intact from fully saturated coconut oil. These populations have all shown nearly non-existent rates of cardiovascular disease. This has to be some sort of evidence that coconut oil does not behave in the same way as saturated fats from animals.
Anti-viral & Anti-bacterial
Fifty percent of coconut oil is made up of lauric acid. Lauric acid is known, by many medical professionals, to increase levels of good cholesterol and is actually correlated with a decrease in risk of heart disease. It also has other health promoting benefits such as being anti-bacterial and anti-viral. When coconut oil is enzymatically digested, it also forms a monoglyceride called monolaurin. Both lauric acid and monolaurin can kill harmful pathogens like bacteria, viruses and fungi. For example, these substances have been shown to kill the dangerous bacteria - Staphylococcus Aureus and the yeast Candida Albicans, a common source of yeast infections in humans. So, it could also help to heal leaky gut syndrome which can lead to autoimmune activity.
Exploring the Downside of Coconut Oil
I have come across an article written by Prof Jelinek on the melting points of the various acids in coconut oil. This is, potentially, where we may run into some problems with coconut oil. Obviously, we want coconut oil to be in a fairly liquid state inside our bodies so that it doesn't do any 'clogging' of arteries or cells.
We all know that, when we are healthy and well, our body temperature hovers around 98.6F/37C. If the melting point of the fat we eat is below our body temperature then it will be liquid in our bodies and behave that way in the cell membranes. However, if the melting point of the fat is higher than this then, the fat will be solid in our bodies.
Saturated Animal Fats
Melting points of fats are a big predictor of whether they are healthy for us or not and how they will behave in our bodies. Animal saturated fats, mostly found in meat, have high melting points. Most saturated fats in meats have a melting of around 158F/70C. This is much higher than our body temperature which means they do their fair share of clogging. Populations who consume a lot of meat have higher rates of disease. This has been proven by The China Study.
Unsaturated & Polyunsaturated Fats
Unsaturated fats, such as olive oil, and the polyunsaturated fats like fish and vegetable oils, have lower melting points. They are liquid at room temperature. Prof Jelinek explains that the membranes containing these fats are soft, pliable and non-sticky. Communities where these fats predominate in the diet have low rates of the common Western diseases.
Coconut oil (a category all on its own)
Coconut oil doesn't seem to fit into any of the categories because it is a plant saturated fat. It has a melting point of 78 degrees F/25 degrees C. So, it makes sense that it should be liquid in our bodies. You will notice that on a hot day in your kitchen, it will no longer be solid. Much easier to cook with! However, this is the confusing bit, it contains various acids which appear to have a higher melting point:
- lauric acid makes up exactly 50%. Melting Point = 111.5F/44.2C
- myristic acid makes up 20%: Melting Point = 129F/53.9C
- palmitic acid makes up 10%: Melting Point = 145.563.1C
I can't find a reason for this discrepancy. How can coconut oil melt at 78F/25C while its components melt at higher temperatures. From quite a bit of research, the only thing I can gather is that, isolated on their own, and in their purest form, those three acids have higher melting points. However, in coconut oil, they melt at 25 deg C. I have never seen little bits of solid fat floating around in melted coconut oil. It is a completely clear liquid. This does however remain a mystery that no one can seem to clear up. If you can shed any light on this, I would really appreciate it!
Update - 2nd December 2014:
I have recently been in contact with an academic research scientist on the field of chemistry. She works from Hungary and was able to clear up this confusion for me. She states that coconut oil is a mixture of different fatty acids and that the melting point of a mixture can be lower than each of the constutents' melting points. This means that the "mixture" of lauric acid and the other coconut oil components has a melting point of 25°C. She reckons that the melting point of coconut oil is irrelevant when considering dietary use. In our digestive system the food components are digested on the molecular level (i.e. via biochemical reactions, processes) and not as macroscopic materials.
So, this is a significant development in the understanding of how coconut oil works in our systems. It is definitely not solid in our bodies, nor are any of the fatty acids that it consists of. Our bodies are free to use it or burn it. In my mind, this has made it ok to keep eating but I will still be cautious about not overdoing it and sticking to the 15g per day limit set by Swank.
(Back to the original post):
Lauric and myristic acids also have so many health benefits that they snapped up by the body and converted into useful compounds that the body uses for energy and to boost the immune system. Therefore, their melting points seem irrelevant seeing as though they are easily broken down and used. They are definitely not stored as saturated fat.
Where to From Here?
I have really tried to delve deeply into the chemistry of coconut oil and how it is used in the body. I must say that I can't find any obvious reasons to exclude it. I respect Prof Jelinek's opinion on coconut oil and the MS diet, immensely. This is why I find this such a difficult topic to write about. He has made the personal decision to avoid all coconut products and has been well for 14 years. Who can argue with that? However, it is obviously his entire way of life that has kept him healthy and not just the absence of a few grams of coconut oil. It is impossible to to isolate what, specifically, has kept him symptom free. Interestingly (slightly off topic), Prof Jelinek hasn't given up products containing gluten, nor does he promote gluten free living. Yet, there is overwhelming evidence that gluten can cause and perpetuate MS.
So, we all need to make our own decisions about what to eat and what not to. We are all different in our makeup and our bodies handle foods very differently. I do believe that there are some basic ground rules that need to be adhered to. This is why I have decided to keep eating coconut oil and enjoying the benefits but restricting it to Swank's limit of 15 grams a day - just to be on the safe side.
Eating Coconut Oil
I am very aware of the amount of coconut oil I am consuming on a daily basis. I don't just use it willy nilly. There are around 12 grams of saturated fat in one tablespoon of coconut oil. I make sure that this is my limit. If you're sticking to Swank's recommendation of no more than 15 grams of saturated fat a day, then this puts you well under. I don't consume any other saturated fat in my diet. I also don't use coconut oil everyday.
I mainly use coconut oil for cooking. It is a robust oil, has a high smoke point and doesn't denature like extra virgin olive oil does when heated. I also love it in raw tarts and cakes. I always make sure that I use the cold-pressed, virgin coconut oil that has not been treated or altered in any way.
Summing it up
It is up to you to decide whether or not coconut oil should be included in your diet. I have felt the health benefits of moderate consumption and will continue to include it in my diet, sticking to the 15 gram limit, of course. I feel that coconut oil has tremendous benefits for the body and brain. I even use it on my skin with wonderful results. I hear that it is also great for adding health and shininess to hair, although I haven't tried this yet! Coconut oil is an enigma. It is saturated and yet has far reaching health benefits, some of which have only been discovered in recent years. Have we been missing out on a miracle food? Maybe. But, perhaps it's just an ordinary food that the body can effectively utilise for its never-ending job of providing us with energy and keeping us healthy.
Please feel free to post comments and questions!
Love & Nutrients,