Coconuts are a savior to dairy-free dieters and food allergic consumers. Rich in healthy fats, the oil from this enormous fruit (typically solid at room temperature) is an excellent substitute for butter. In addition, coconut milk has proven to be very versatile as a replacement for cow's milk and cream. The following article details the many benefits of coconut products (from weight loss to IBS), how to use them, and what to look for when purchasing:
By Tanya Carwyn – February 1, 2007 – Coconuts are not actually nuts, but fruits of a palm tree in the date family. That is why people with tree nut allergies generally can tolerate coconut just fine. And often people who are allergic to coconuts can tolerate the oil well, since the allergic reactions typically are to the protein, not the fat. Coconut is used in many different ways and forms. Popular in this country are the dried meat (sweetened or not), the coconut milk and coconut oil.
Coconuts, in whatever form, have been a staple of many peoples in the tropical areas of our world for a very long time. It is a typical “traditional food” with many health benefits.
Lately there has been quite a buzz about coconut (and specifically coconut oil). In a country that feels the pressure of the obesity epidemic more and more each year, the possible weight loss benefits of coconut oil receive the most attention in the media.
America is slowly waking up from its low fat dream (should I say nightmare?) and becoming more and more aware of the many benefits of traditional (including saturated) fats. Lets take a look at the benefits of this traditional, inexpensive, widely available, delicious, whole food.
The Make-up of Coconut Oil
All fat and oils (oils are just fats that are liquid at room temperature) are made up of a combination of short, medium and long chain fatty acids. Short chain fatty acids are primarily found in butterfat. Medium chain fatty acids are also found in butterfat and in the tropical oils. Long chain fatty acids are found in polyunsaturated oils such as soy, corn, safflower and canola oils.
The latter, the oils contain primarily long chain fatty acid, are also used in the livestock industry. They are fed to animals because (hold on to your seat) they are well known to cause those animals to gain weight rapidly. One can only assume this would translate directly to human consumption as well.
The fatty acids found in coconut oil are primarily medium chain fatty acids. These fats have antimicrobal properties (we will look at those in a moment) and contribute to the health of the immune system. They don’t have to be acted upon by bile salts in the digestive system but are directly absorbed for quick energy. This makes them less likely to cause weight gain and may actually increase the body’s metabolism and thus promote weight loss.
Several scientific studies support the claims that medium chain fatty acids can promote weight loss. One such study done in 2003 by the journal “Obesity Research” using rats showed that the rats fed long chain fatty acids stored body fat while their friends being fed medium chain fatty acids such as occur in coconut oil actually lost body fat and improved their sensitivity to insulin and their tolerance of glucose. In March of that same year that journal also published findings that medium-chain triglycerides (fatty acids) increase energy expenditure … in overweight men. Those consuming medium chain fatty acids lost more weight and had more energy than those consuming long chain fatty acids (in this case olive oil).
Earlier (in 2002) the Journal of Nutrition reported that medium chain fatty acids are more readily oxidized in the liver than long chain fatty acids, which leads to more energy and less weight gain. The study concluded that medium chain fatty acids increase energy expenditure, may result in faster satiety, and facilitate weight control when included in the diet as a replacement for fats containing long chain fatty acids.
There are other reasons why coconut oil may help you shed those extra pounds. “I think the real key to coconut oil and weight loss is the fact that it decreases your appetite while you’re eating the meal and afterwards,” says Dr Fife, a Naturopathic Doctor and Certified Nutritionist and a well known supporter of the health benefits of coconuts. “Studies show that when these fats are added, people are satisfied sooner and eat less, and at the next meal they don’t make up for it by eating more.” Fife says that the types of oils present in coconut oil stimulate metabolism. “It promotes thermogenesis [burning of calories to produce heat], and some people with low thyroid function tell me they feel warm and their body temperature rises one or two degrees after eating coconut oil.”
Other benefits of coconut oil
Beyond these benefits, coconut oil can be useful in other areas as well. It contains about 60% lauric acid, a fatty acid also found in human breast milk, that is antifungal, antibacterial and antiviral. According to Mary Enig, Ph.D (one of the worlds foremost lipid researchers) some of the pathogens inactivated by lauric acid include HIV, measles, herpes simplex virus, cytomegalovirus (CMV), influenza virus and pneumonovirus, as well as several bacteria. People struggling with an overgrowth of the fungus Candida albicans also use it.
There are also some positive reports to be found about using coconut oil for treating Inflammatory Bowel Diseases such as Crohn’s disease, IBS and others.
And last, but not least, coconut oil is very useful, both internally and topically in treating and healing skin and hair issues. Many users report thicker, fuller hair and stronger hair growth as well as clear, acne free, supple skin with use of the oil internally. It can also be used as a topical moisturizer for both hair and skin and has been used as such traditionally as well.
And more good news, unrefined coconut oil has a room temperature shelf life of 3-5 years!
What to buy?
There are several different types of products out on the market.
Coconut milk (either home made from desiccated coconut or canned) contains quite a bit of the oil and can be used in many recipes to replace other kinds of milk. Try a coconut milk smoothie or of course us it in Thai curries.
Unrefined (raw, extra virgin are other names for it) coconut oil is great to take by the spoonful if you are using it as a supplement, for skincare or to blend into smoothies or to top off your hot cocoa (you have to try this, its just fantastic!). I don’t recommend using it for cooking at medium or higher temperatures. This has a wonderful coconut flavor
Refined coconut oil: This is more refined then the previous one but retains many of its benefits. Use this to fry and sauté anything you can think of. It does not taste like coconut at all and so is a way for folks who don’t like that taste to still get some in their diets. Wonderful for baking and makes a mean piecrust.
Tanya Carwyn is a Certified Clinical Herbalist practicing in the greater Denver area. She lives in Littleton with her husband and their two daughters. She is currently setting up www.kitchenmuse.net , a website about Real Food for Real Health, Traditional Nutrition, Local and Seasonal Food, and how to incorporate those things into your busy lifestyle.