I can remember taking nutrition courses during my time in my exercise physiology department and recall how saturated fats were always deemed as being very bad. The rationale is based on saturated fat being associated with increased cholesterol and consequently, heart disease (Margen et al., 1991; Marieb, 1998).
The mechanism of insult is based on a long-term progression of fatty plaques occluding the lumen (Squires, 1998). This process is thought to occur throughout daily life when there are abrupt increases in blood pressure from various causes and with excess cholesterol floating around in the blood, the ruptures in the endothelium are patched up by fatty acids (Sime et al., 1998). Over time, this accumulation in the inner lining of the endothelium eventually leads to a smaller vessel diameter and all it takes is one bolus of material to clog the small lumen to trigger what is known as a myocardial infarction (heart attack).
Personally, I believe that this physiological model on atherosclerosis is true for the most part. However, I firmly believe that there are certain vested interests and biased views from powers that be towards natural cures and preventative methods (Fife, 2004; Trudeau, 2004; Trudeau, 2007).
Atherosclerosis is a disease affecting arterial blood vessels. It is a chronic inflammatory response in the walls of arteries, in large part due to the accumulation of macrophage white blood cells and promoted by low density lipoproteins without adequate removal of fats and cholesterol from the macrophages by functional high density lipoproteins. It is commonly referred to as a "hardening" or "furring" of the arteries.
The eastern approach (Seaward, 2002) is one based on natural and alternative solutions. When assessing one's health, risk factors are used to stratify one's health status. Problem with this approach is that when looking at risk factors, one risk factor will never be "the one."
In many cases, it is the cumulative effect of all risk factors acting together in a synergistic manner that turns the balance. Certain risk factors have a heavier influence than others (i.e. family history); however, this is not to say that one should give up hope because of risk factors that are out of his/her control (hereditary risk factors).
Saturated fat is just one nutritional risk factor that can increase risk of coronary heart disease. However, there is a certain untold side to saturated fat. Now, unlike the stance of Dr. Mary Enig, (Enig & Fallon, 2005), I believe her approach has merit, but unfortunately it falls flat in that it supports a higher fat diet. The same occurs with Kevin Trudeau in his line of books on Natural cures (Trudeau, 2004) and The weight loss cure (Trudeau, 2007).
Both authors give the impression of finding "it" or "the" answer. Conversely, I take the approach of finding "an" answer or finding "a" significant factor. Bottomline: Everyone is different and the best thing is to seek the care of a physician that puts the non-pharmacological approach first or a registered dietician.
The next best thing would be to arm yourself with the knowledge out there, know your own body and health history so you can make an affirmative decision as to whether you should try something (supplement, food, exercise, etc.).
Along these lines, there are certain evidence-based criteria I use in this approach. I use research (pubmed), reputable affiliations [only get United States Pharmacopeia (USP) verified supplements] and for non-USP verified supplements, I make sure there is a preponderance of data supporting the benefits of the supplement/food/exercise and that the risks are as low as possible.
Lastly, I will use word of mouth from either reputable and accredited sources (experts in the field with the highest qualifications) or the status quo (power in numbers).
Coconut Oil Good For You?
With all this being said, lets get to the issue at hand; Coconut oil. Basically it is an oil that is ~92% saturated fat! How can this oil be good? Well, to my and in a few minutes, your amazement, it is (Dayrit, 2003). Let me just impress the heck out of everyone by supporting this last statement with some concrete and solid research studies, expert opinions and scientific rationale.
Medium-Chain Triglycerides (MCT)
Coconut oil contains ~ 64% MCT (Dayrit, 2003; Fife, 2004). This is more than any other food in existence. Research has clearly shown that MCT's are thermogenic (Scalfi et al., 1991) and that less is stored away as body fat (Papamandjaris et al., 2000; St-Onge & Jones, 2002; St-Onge & Jones, 2003).
The reason for this phenomenon is that the
MCT's are rapidly absorbed from the intestines directly into the portal system and sent to the liver instead of through the lymphatic system like all other fats; they also do not require carnitine for transport and they are quickly oxidized and used for energy much like
carbohydrates (Amarasiri & Dissanayake, 2006; Aoyama et al., 2007; Bach & Babayan, 1982; Hashim, 1967; Manore et al., 1993; Pehowich et al., 2000).
Avocado's Distant Cousin
There is really no connection here, except the fact that both are plant-based foods that are high in fat. More importantly, when has a plant-based food ever been unhealthy for us? The answer is virtually never.
So why in the world has coconut oil been viewed negatively by the medical and healthcare community when it is a plant-based food that has many notable health promoting properties. For a while, avocados were deemed as being bad for us due to their high fat content. However, it was later found that most of the fat was good fat and of unsaturated nature.
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Research has shown coconut oil does not increase risk of
heart disease (Cox et al., 1998; Elson, 1992; Kumar, 1997; Lindeberg, 1997; Lipoeto et al., 2004), and in some research it actually lowers risk of heart disease (Kaunitz, 1986; Prior et al., 1981). Other research has shown virgin coconut oil to lower lipid levels by way of the biologically active polyphenol components present in the oil (Nevin & Rajamohan, 2004).
On the contrary, coconut oil is mainly saturated fat. What is more impressive is that if there was ever a healthy saturated fat, this is it! Again, with ~64% being MCT, it could be logically deducted that less than half of the fat consumed will be stored as fat, provided the body is in the ideal condition for such an occurrence.
Heart Health Articles:
From a theoretical perspective, in a fed state (anabolic state), with no macronutrients being in deficit, any excess fat will be stored as body fat. Coconut oil is no exception (Schwarzenegger, 1998). However, research has clearly shown that less will be stored as fat (Portillo et al., 1998; Scalfi et al., 1991).
However, during a low-calorie cycle of which either carbs or fats are reduced, with protein being kept normal to high normal, less fat will be stored away from coconut oil since the body will be in a caloric deficit. Since the body will be in a negative caloric balance, it will not want to store MCT as body fat, but rather, it will be scavenging for energy to try and provide energy! Thus, the MCT from the coconut oil will be immediately oxidized for fuel, hence less stored as body fat.
It is clear that saturated fat, but more in particular,
cholesterol, is needed for
testosterone production (Marieb, 1998). When trying to hold on to muscle while dieting, keeping protein normal to high-normal is essential in partitioning substrate oxidation towards carbs and fats. However, several studies have shown that low saturated fat diets lead to decreased testosterone production (Berrino et al., 2001; Hamalainen et al., 1983; Hamalainen et al., 1984).
The most common remedy in this case would be red meat right? Not necessarily. Remember, when trying to get ripped for a contest, fat needs to be lowered, and good fats need to be kept to a minimum. The logic here is to expunge of our fat reserves (An average male at 15% body fat has ~70,000 calories of FAT!) and sustain our essential fat reserves (fat covering membranes, organs, nerves, etc.). Thus, nutrient partitioning is so crucial in attaining an optimal physique according to bodybuilding standards.
So how can coconut oil help? Well, since most of the saturated fat will be oxidized for energy for a dieting natural bodybuilder, less is stored as fat. However, for the small amount that is not oxidized, it will be used to stimulate and aid in the manufacturing of testosterone. Therefore, one can keep testosterone levels stable, which will help in holding onto precious hard-earned muscle when getting shredded for a show.
The logic is that if we stay lifting heavy and keep our strength high, we will give our muscle a reason to stay big and by hormonally supporting this with a little healthy testosterone stimulating saturated fat, muscle will not be lost.
Additionally, the lower the carb intake, the more important it becomes to NOT limit fat intake, in particular saturated fat (Volek & Forsythe, 2005). Instead, saturated fat and total fat intake should increase to keep the caloric deficit from getting too severe (Volek & Forsythe, 2005).
Another aspect of debate is the connection with high-fat red meat and how its increase in cholesterol does increase testosterone production, but with this testosterone boost comes an increased risk of prostatic cancers (Gann et al., 1996). However, a recent study showed that despite increased testosterone levels, coconut oil actually decreased the risk of prostatic cancer (De Lourdes et al., 2007).
It should be understood that recent research is showing that men at higher risk of prostate cancer actually have lower testosterone levels (Mearini et al., 2008). The correlation with red meat and prostate cancer is probably based mainly on the saturated fat content of the red meat.
In essence, if one limits saturated fat content to prudent levels and consumes cholesterol in prudent levels, one can see optimal testosterone levels. It is typically when one eats excess of saturated fat and cholesterol does the increase testosterone come along with the increased risk of prostate cancer.
Testosterone does not cause prostate cancer, it is excess amounts of saturated fat and cholesterol along with an unhealthy lifestyle that increases risk. Having normal to high testosterone levels actually reduce the risk of prostate cancer and can be cardioprotective (Bain, 2007; Mearini et al., 2008).
Early Research & A Natural Bodybuilder's Discovery
What's interesting is the fact that
MCT have been used in the early years of bodybuilding. Particularly, an elite acclaimed natural bodybuilder referred to as "The natural wonder" used MCT extensively in his nutritional intake during precontest preparation (Manore et al., 1993).
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Although this bodybuilder consumed a very high amount of MCT (~30% of
calories), he was able to successfully go from 9% body fat to 6.9% body fat via underwater weighing, in a time period of 8-weeks. He was a very successful bodybuilder having won many competitions (Mr. Universe 1986 and 1st place in the 1990 International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB)
Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic).
Like avocados, coconut oil has gotten a bad rap for no really good reason. In fact, the reasoning of it being mainly saturated fat as the ONLY reason it has gotten this bad rap just illustrates how far behind our medical community is in terms of depth in nutritional science.
At worst, the argument of Bruce Fife of this being a political war among the oils and vested interests certainly raises concern as to what information is being misplaced, hidden and concealed from the desperately needing public.
Personally, I find that Bruce Fife's argument is true and that many medical students are being deceived about the truth behind coconut oil. In fact, one such physician answered a question about coconut oil in a column and strongly stated that coconut oil is not a healthy food and should not be consumed often (Komaroff, 2006).
What's more is that he did later allude to a textbook showing it had modest cavity-lowering effects. Well, as I mentioned earlier, the medical community is really far behind in terms of depth in nutritional science. Research has clearly shown that dental disease is associated with heart disease (Starkhammar et al., 2008).
If coconut oil aids in reducing dental disease, then it also indirectly aids in lowering risk of heart disease. What's more shocking is that this physician wrote this for the Harvard health letter!
The key is to consume coconut oil in moderation and to use it as an additive to various foods when other sources of fat are lowered. Coconut oil does not need to be consumed everyday, but consuming it in moderation and prudently will only serve to expand one's variety in food selection and provide new health and taste benefits.
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- Bain J. (2007). The many faces of testosterone, Clinical Interventions in Aging, 2(4), 567-576.
- Berrino et al. (2001). Reducing bioavailable sex hormones through a comprehensive change in diet: The Diet And Androgrens (DIANA) Randomized Trial, Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers and Prevention, 10(1), 25-33.
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- Dayrit, C.S. (2003). Coconut Oil: Atherogenic or Not? (What therefore causes Atherosclerosis?), Philippine Journal of Cardiology, 31(3), 97-104. Retrieved July 21, 2007, from http://www.coconutoil.com/Dayrit%20Cardiology.pdf
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The information provided in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and does not serve as a replacement to care provided by your own personal health care team or physician. The author does not render or provide medical advice, and no individual should make any medical decisions or change their health behavior based on information provided here. Reliance on any information provided by the author is solely at your own risk. The author accepts no responsibility for materials contained in the article and will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary, or other damages arising from the use of information contained in this or other publications.
Copyright © Ivan Blazquez, 2007. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder and author of this publication.