Franceska Marinkovic

Coconut oil – is it healthy or not?

Coconut oil, thanks to its compounds, can reduce stress, strengthen the immune system, protect cardiovascular and gastrointestinal systems. Coconut oil is unique in its category, and as an endurance athlete, you should absolutely add it to your personalized and trusted diet plan.

Coconut oil is commonly used in tropical countries such as Thailand, the Philippines, India, etc. It became very popular in the United States and Canada, but in the 70s there was intense propaganda by soy and corn oil multinationals against coconut oil. It was considered very harmful for the human body due to its high saturated fat content, but were these statements truthful?

In the last two decades, numerous scientific studies have shown that coconut oil’s medium-chain fats are unique to other types of fats and have many beneficial effects on our body.

In the last few years, coconut oil is promoted as a superfood, standing right next to blueberries, nuts, or avocado. Well, implying one food to be more important than other foods can bring confusion and overconsuming, bringing to the surface possible adverse effects as is the case with coconut oil. In other words, if coconut oil has numerous beneficial effects on your organism, it does not mean you have to stop consuming extra virgin olive oil or hemp seeds oil. Remember that moderation is the key to health and success, and of course a custom athletic nutrition plan.

Now let’s take an in-depth look at coconut oil, its beneficial effects, doubts about its fats, and possible side effects.

Table of Contents

What is coconut oil?

Coconut oil is a type of vegetable oil obtained from the pulp of the coconut.  It is extracted by mechanical pressing under controlled temperature conditions, and when so, it is labeled as “virgin” and “cold-pressed” coconut oil.

Coconut oil is rich in saturated fats like lauric acid, and it contains small amounts of unsaturated fats. The previous sentence could make coconut oil look like a pretty bad ingredient to consume. But not all saturated fats are bad for your health. The fats contained in coconut oil have medium-chain triglycerides (MCT), and they are entirely different from long-chain triglycerides present, for example, in meat and dairy products.

But why, after hundreds of studies that confirm the numerous benefits of coconut oil, scientific community guidelines still include this ingredient in the “blacklist” along with palm oil, margarine, butter, etc.?

Let’s start with the nutrition facts of coconut oil.

Nutrition facts

100 g of coconut oil provides 862 calories in the form of lipids.

In particular, 100 g of coconut oil provides:
87 g of saturated fat
6 g of monounsaturated fat in the form of oleic acid
1.8 g of polyunsaturated fat in the form of linoleic acid
86.80% of saturated fatty acids come in for of:
44.80% Lauric acid
17% Myristic acid
8.4% Palmitic acid
2.6% Stearic acid
14% (Butyric acid, Caproic acid, Caprylic acid, and Capric acid)

What are saturated fats?

We suppose that the first word that comes to your mind when you hear about saturated fat is – unhealthy. Well, that is far from the truth, and here is why.

Fats (or lipids) are organic compounds, insoluble in water, consisting mainly of carbon and hydrogen.

To understand better the difference, we can divide fats into two main groups:

  1. Fats with an energetic function, called triglycerides. Fatty chains composing triglycerides can be saturated, unsaturated, or both. These fats are either stored as fat in our body or used as an energy source.
  2. Fats with a structural function, such as cholesterol and others.

Unlike unsaturated fats, saturated fats are considered unhealthy, as they are more difficult to metabolize and tend to accumulate in the blood.

Saturated fatty acids contain single bonds and differ in the number of carbon atoms in the chain and the type, number, and location of the chemical bonds that bind the carbon atoms.

Based on their structure, saturated fatty acids can be classified into:

  • Short-chain fatty acids ( 6 or fewer carbon atoms)
  • Medium-chain fatty acids ( 6 – 12 carbon atoms)
  • Long-chain fatty acids ( 13 or more carbon atoms)

Just as these fatty acids have different structures, their effects on your health are quite different.

Saturated fats in coconut oil are represented mainly by medium-chain fatty acids.

What are medium-chain triglycerides?

Medium-chain triglycerides (MCT) contain saturated fatty acids with 6 – 12 carbon atoms.

Unlike long-chain triglycerides, medium-chain triglycerides are broken down into glycerol and medium-chain fatty acids. MCTs are directly absorbed into the bloodstream and transported to the liver, where they will be turned into ketones or used as an energy source. Your body produces ketones during low carbohydrate intake or prolonged and intense training.

Therefore, coconut oil, rich in MCTs, seems to be a very healthy source of calories. Most MCTs are burned at the speed of light by the body and leave no traces of unwanted effects.

On the other hand, long-chain triglycerides have an atherogenic nature – they tend to promote fatty deposits in the arteries. Also, long-chain saturated fats have a solid texture and are much less digestible than medium-chain fats. They are usually of animal origin.

MCTs have a predominantly energetic function and thus represent an alternative and complementary metabolic pathway to the intake of sugars and starches, allowing saving glycogen and amino acids in the muscle.

Coconut oil contains 3 types of medium-chain fatty acids:

  1. Lauric acid – makes up about 44% of coconut oil.
  2. Capric Acid – 6%
  3. Caprylic Acid – 4%

In smaller percentages, coconut oil contains long-chain fatty acids and unsaturated fats.

Not all saturated fats are unhealthy

Coconut oil contains around 87% of saturated fatty acids, which is more than in butter – 64% saturated fat, and lard – 43% saturated fat. The consumption of aliments rich in saturated fats can be dangerous because it increases LDL-cholesterol levels, which can adversely affect metabolic risk factors and increase cardiovascular disease risks. But again, when you read statements like these, you should know it refers to long-chain fatty acids, while coconut oil is predominantly composed of medium-chain fatty acids.

In fact, coconut oil consumption can increase the so-called good HDL-cholesterol and seems to have no adverse effects on cardiovascular health, which appears to be the biggest concern around coconut oil consumption. That is why it is essential to differentiate between harmful and unharmful saturated fats.

That said, let’s see the most valuable health benefits of coconut oil.

The health benefits of coconut oil

Coconut oil is used in Ayurvedic medicine for more than 4000 years. Indian healers attributed many positive health effects to this ingredient, comparing it to human milk. In fact, there is a link between these two ingredients, as they are both abundant in saturated fatty acids. We all know that Ayurvedic healers did not treat people with the same disease the same way; they had a holistic and personalized approach.

As an endurance athlete, you should know that what applies to the general population does not always apply to you. Most people may not benefit as much as you can from the consumption of coconut oil, as in many cases, the adverse effects can overcome the positive ones. That is also why you should have a well-planned diet tailored to match perfectly your organisms’ needs.

There is no doubt that coconut oil consumption has numerous health benefits for athletes and that it should be a part of your personalized diet plan.

MCTs boosts your endurance

MCTs from coconut oil are a great energy source you can count on, as they convert to energy without the help of carnitine, which makes the converting process faster. This process makes them an efficient and quickly available energy source for your muscles.

That does not mean that you should cut on carbohydrates; on the contrary, MCTs should serve as fuel, in addition to carbohydrates during your strength and peak phases.

It strengthens the immune system

Training hard, resting, and eating well are the most important factors for achieving your athletic goals.

A clean eating meal plan is crucial as it gives you the energy you need to face your training sessions, substances that sustain recovery, and support your immune system.

Supporting your immune system properly through a healthy diet is a vital step towards athletic success. Respiratory tract and gut health are of particular importance, as any issues regarding these two systems can negatively affect your performance. As an endurance athlete, you are more prone to respiratory infections and gut disorders like leaky gut syndrome, both connected with the state of your immune system. That is precisely why every endurance athlete needs a personal training nutrition plan.

Dietary fatty acids play an important role in modulating the immune response and are fundamental structural compounds of all cells. The MCTs in coconut oil can help modulate immunity, and they act as a natural antibiotic. Lauric acid is also known for being an antimicrobial agent.

In this study, scientists demonstrated that medium-chain fatty acids are effective against various lipid-coated viruses such as Cytomegalovirus, Epstein-Barr virus, influenza causing viruses, etc. These fatty acids in coconut oil seem to destroy these viruses by disrupting their membranes and blocking their maturation.

MCTs seem to improve cognitive functions

Medium-chain triglycerides may improve cognitive functions, and the brain can use them as an alternative fuel to glucose.

Improved brain functioning can obviously enhance your performance, and therefore the consumption of medium-chain fatty acids can be a good help. They seem to improve your brain’s functions relatively quickly due to the ketone bodies of medium-chain acids, which enhance the brain’s metabolic processes.

MCFAs increase HDL cholesterol levels

As previously stated, not all saturated fatty acids are bad for your overall health, and not all of them contribute to increase the risk of cardiovascular disease.  Many studies that demonstrated the adverse effects of high saturated fat intake compared long-chain fatty acids with unsaturated fat intake. On the other side, very few studies examined the effects of medium-chain fatty acids on the cardiovascular system.

This study showed that the long-term consumption of moderate amounts of medium-chain triglycerides did not negatively impact cardiovascular disease risk factors. This study compared medium-chain triglycerides oil with olive oil, which is generally considered the best oil consumption option in the human diet. They concluded: “MCT oil consumption does not differ from olive oil in its effects on cardiovascular disease risk and may thus be considered to be a neutral dietary fat as well.”

They also showed that medium-chain triglycerides, when consumed at levels of 12 to 20% of energy intakes, did not increase the triglycerides concentrations.  It is just one of many studies that should serve as an example that saturated fats should not be treated as a whole when examining their potential adverse effects on human health.

Therefore, some of these studies concluded that coconut oil consumption increases good HDL cholesterol levels and reduces triglyceride levels. Also, an increase in total cholesterol should be examined in-depth, as the increase of good HDL cholesterol will obviously increase your total cholesterol, while LDL cholesterol levels may remain the same.

There is another interesting study that investigated the diet of two populations of Polynesians. Scientists discovered that cardiovascular disease was uncommon in both populations, although coconut is their primary energy source and saturated fat intake is very high. There are also other factors to consider, like stress levels, pollution, other dietary habits, etc. However, this study confirms that a diet high in “healthy” saturated fat cannot be considered harmful for human health by itself.

Absorption of vitamins and fat-soluble nutrients

There is no point in consuming high quantities of food rich in vitamins and minerals if no attention to their absorption is being paid. For example, iron-rich food should be consumed with vitamin C rich foods, fat-soluble vitamins with dietary fats, etc.

Coconut oil allows proper absorption and assimilation of fat-soluble vitamins like vitamins A, D, E, and K, thus improving the proper functioning of many organ systems of the human body. 

Medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil are also easily digested, contributing to better absorption of nutrients by putting less strain on the digestive system.

Therefore, coconut oil is not the “black sheep” of oils and fats, and it should be a part of your training nutrition plan. Regular and moderate coconut oil consumption can be just one of many steps you can take towards your athletic success.

… and remember Eat Smarter | Train Better | Race Faster

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