Yes, Coconut Oil Is Good For You!

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And So Are Other Saturated Fats

Coconut oil contains a treasure trove of good-for-you nutrients, from its medium-chain fatty acids which have been shown to improve the symptoms of Alzheimer’s to the high level of antioxidants that can reduce the inflammation associated with arthritis. i Unfortunately, this nutritional powerhouse got caught in the middle of the saturated fat debate earlier this summer when the American Heart Association (AHA) released a report that said it was not the health food it was purported to be. The report said that coconut oil is unhealthy, in short because it contains saturated fat and will raise cholesterol levels. The debate around saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease is an ongoing one, and the AHA’s report brought it back to center stage, with coconut oil caught in the cross-fire.

But let’s take a look at the research. The four core trials that the AHA based its conclusions on were from 1968, 1969, 1970, and 1979.ii In recent years there have been a number of studies, reviews, and clinical trials that have concluded there is not a clear link between saturated fat intake and heart disease and cardiovascular death.iii iv v vi Although the AHA acknowledges these studies exist, they chose to focus on the four older studies for their core recommendations. Additionally, the report focused on the idea that saturated fats, including coconut oil, increase LDL cholesterol, while glossing over research that suggests not all types of LDL cholesterol are bad. There are two very different types of LDL particles—small, dense particles and large, fluffy particles. The small, dense particles have been implicated in cardiovascular disease, while the larger particles have not. Which type of LDL particle does saturated fat increase? You guessed it—the large, fluffy type.vii viii (Sugar increases the small, dense LDL particles.) Saturated fat has also been found to increase HDL cholesterol, what is considered the “good” cholesterol and is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease.ix x

Saturated fat and cholesterol support health

Let’s talk about saturated fat and cholesterol, because they are actually vital for good health. Did you know that your brain is mostly made of cholesterol and saturated fat? Cholesterol promotes the growth of new brain cells, facilitates communication between neurons, and is a critical component of the myelin sheath, the protective covering of our nerves. It may also protect against Alzheimer’s disease. A study conducted in New York City including 1,130 elderly people found that higher HDL cholesterol levels were associated with a significant decrease in the risk of Alzheimer’s, even when adjusting for other factors including vascular disease, age, sex, education level, and genes that predispose to the disease.xi A more recent Mayo Clinic study found that those participants who consumed the most fat were 42 percent less likely to have cognitive impairment.xii And finally, a study published in the medical journal The Lancet measured lipid and serum cholesterol levels in 3,572 men, ages 71-93 years old, and found that those with the lowest cholesterol levels were more likely to die from any cause.xiii

Coconut oil, a unique saturated fat with plenty of health benefits

While coconut oil is mostly composed of saturated fats, the majority of those saturated fats are mediumchain fatty acids (MCFAs). MCFAs are easily absorbed and metabolized by the liver, where they are directly turned into energy rather than being stored as fat. Nearly all of coconut oil’s health benefits come from these MCFAs.

Here’s a quick rundown of why coconut oil is good for you:

  • As already mentioned, the saturated fat in coconut oil increases HDL cholesterol and the large, fluffy type of LDL cholesterol—both considered good-for-you cholesterol. And a recent study of coronary artery disease patients found that the consumption of coconut oil also reduced body weight, overall BMI, waist circumference, glucose, and insulin levels, while also increasing HDL cholesterol.xiv Animal studies have shown that coconut oil prevents the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, a primary culprit in the development of atherosclerosis.xv
  • One of the main MCFAs in coconut oil is lauric acid, which has strong antimicrobial properties, and once ingested, it is converted to monolaurin, another compound that exhibits significant antiviral, antifungal, and antimicrobial properties. It has been shown to inactivate a wide variety of bacteria, viruses, and fungi including Listeria monocytogenes, Helicobacter pylori, Staphylococcus aureus, Streptococcus agalactiae, measles, herpes simplex I and II, influenza, and Candida albicans. xvi xvii
  • The MCFAs in coconut oil help preserve insulin sensitivity in both animal models and in people with type-2 diabetes.xviii xix xx Insulin resistance is implicated in the development of cardiovascular disease, type-2 diabetes, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
  • When the MCFAs in coconut oil are metabolized, they produce ketones, which can cross the blood-brain barrier and provide an alternative fuel source for brain cells. This has important implications in Alzheimer’s disease, which scientists now recognize as “type-3 diabetes,” in which brain cells develop insulin resistance and can no longer use glucose for energy. When there is no energy source, cells begin to die. Coconut oil also contains antioxidant phenolic compounds that may help in preventing the accumulation of amyloid-beta plaque, a key step in the development of Alzheimer’s.xxi

So there you have it. Coconut oil actually is a good-for-you food! While the AHA continues to recommend a low-fat diet that includes skim milk, egg whites, omega-6 vegetable oils like corn, soybean, and canola oil, and margarine—foods that promote inflammation, oxidation, and poor healthxxii—current research on coconut oil confirms that this saturated fat holds a variety of health benefits and can absolutely be a part of a healthy diet.

 

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Your Child’s Brain on Fat… It’s a Good Thing!

It’s almost time for the kiddos to head back to school, and as you are out shopping for school supplies, the most important back-to-school item that should be on your list is not a box of no. 2 pencils or a glue stick, but the omega-3 fatty acids eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA)!

The human brain is nearly 60 percent fat and we now know that healthy fats are crucial for determining the brain’s integrity and ability to perform at its best. EPA and DHA are two such fats. They are concentrated in the synaptic membranes and are essential for neuronal cell growth and communication; they are also critical for early brain development and cognitive function in children.[23] The most abundant omega-3 in the brain, DHA is crucial for learning, memory, and behavior, while EPA has been shown to influence mood and behavior.[24] [25]

Neurocognitive disorders like ADHD, dyslexia, and autism are often associated with a lack of omega-3 fatty acids, while supplementation with DHA specifically improves symptoms and overall cognitive function.[26] [27] [28]

When it comes to academic performance, the research suggests that DHA may be the missing link for children lagging behind. A study conducted in England that included children aged 7-9 years old who had low reading performances found that daily supplementation with 600 mg of DHA (from algal oil) for 16 weeks significantly improved the children’s reading scores. Parents of the children also reported an improvement in behavioral problems like ADHD.[29] A recent review of studies on the relationship between DHA and learning and behavior in children reported that DHA supplementation improved measures of school performance including learning ability, reading, and spelling.[30]

Something to note is that the trans fats commonly found in junk food and fast food interferes with your child’s ability to use the omega-3 fats and can negatively affect the brain’s synapses, the communication pathways in the brain.[31] [32] [33] Fill your child’s diet with healthy proteins and fats and an abundance of fruit and veggies and avoid processed junk food as much as possible (naturalgrocers.com/recipes has lots of healthy snack and lunch ideas).

For supplementation, cod liver oil, fish oil, and algal oil are all good choices and contain balanced amounts of DHA and its partner EPA. Follow the label directions for doses for specific ages and weights. Be aware that flax seed oil is not a good option when your goal is to increase levels of EPA and DHA. While it contains the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), the body has to convert it into DHA and EPA and the conversion process in most people, including children, is not very efficient and will not provide optimal amounts of DHA and EPA.

As you and your family gear up for a new school year, set your child up for success and make sure a high-quality, high-potency omega-3 supplement is on the list of back-to-school musts. It’s a good thing to have a fat head!

References Available Upon Request