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Coconut Oil

By Kathy Duran-Thal, RD, Director of Nutrition, Cooper Wellness

What is it?
It is the edible oil that is extracted from the kernel or meat of matured coconut. The majority of the fat in coconuts is saturated, but this saturated fat is considered different than what is found in animal fats. Animal fats are composed of long chain fatty acids (LCFA); whereas, coconut oil is composed of medium chain fatty acids (MCFA).

MCFA are much smaller in size than LCFA, and this is what makes them easily digested in the body. The fats in coconut oil are actually so small that they are able to bypass the intestine in digestion, therefore not entering the bloodstream and going straight to the liver. In the liver, these MCFA are used as fuel to produce energy. The LCFA are digested slowly in the intestine. As they travel through the intestine, they are combined into bundles called lipoproteins, and these do enter the bloodstream. This is what is thought to cause artery blockage and heart problems.

What are the benefits?
Coconut oil is used for a variety of reasons. According to some, coconut oil has helped to treat heartburn and acid reflux. The main benefit that is being studied is that coconut oil may actually promote weight loss. One study that was done by the American Oil Chemists Society (AOCS) looked at abdominal obesity in women aged 20-40 years. The women who were supplemented with coconut oil showed a decrease in abdominal fat and an increase in high-density lipoprotein (HDL), the “good” cholesterol. The weight loss though could also be attributed to the fact that the women received dietary advice about physical activity and healthier eating habits during the study.

Also, this oil has been touted to help with hypothyroidism, which can cause weight gain, depression and fatigue. According to the Mayo Clinic though, there is still not enough research to promote this claim. An “immune system” booster is another claim that has been made about coconut oil due to the fact that it contains lauric acid. Lauric acid is a fatty acid that is found in breastmilk, and it helps infants to produce the substance monolaurin to fight off viral or bacterial infections. If consumed by an adult, lauric acid is thought to have this same effect. Lauric acid has also been shown to lower the total cholesterol to HDL ratio.

Should I use coconut oil?
Even with all of the benefits it is thought to have, coconut oil is still considered a saturated fat. The Cooper Clinic recommends for a 2,000 calorie a day diet only to consume 16-22 grams of saturated fat, less than seven percent of total daily calories. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains about 13 grams of saturated fat and 120 calories. Keep these numbers in mind if you do decide to use coconut oil. There still needs to be more research to study its long-term effects. For now, use it in moderation, and continue to follow a healthy eating-plan.

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