Crazy for Coconuts
Updated: Nov 9, 2018
Coconut oil has gotten a lot of buzz lately in the nutrition and beauty world over the last few years. And rightfully so. If there is one food that could be considered a “jack of all trades,” coconut oil is it. And it’s not just the oil that’s getting hype- coconut water has become the ultimate natural alternative to traditional sports drinks.
On a personal note, I am obsessed with coconut oil and probably go around smelling like a giant Pina Colada on most days. Besides the intoxicating scent, coconut oil has benefits that rival a lot of other oils. Here is a closer look at some of its uses and beneficial qualities:
1. Nutritional food
Coconut oil is extremely rich in saturated fat. In fact, 90% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are saturated. One would intuitively think that this would make it undesirable. Coconut oil was previously demonized because of this. In fact, a 2017 advisory from the AHA (American Heart Association) that rocked the nutrition world recommended that people AVOID coconut oil as it raises “bad” cholesterol. While very high levels of LDL are problematic, the total LDL number is less important than composition. And consuming saturated fat from clean sources (such as un-refined, organic coconut oil) in moderation in conjunction with a whole food diet rich in vegetables and fiber can actually improve the cholesterol profile. A high-saturated fat (and even low saturated fat) intake in the face of a sugar and refined carbohydrate laden diet that is the REAL problem when it comes to heart disease risk (1). Additionally, there is evidence that coconut oil increases HDL, a type of cholesterol that has a favorable effect on heart disease risk (2).
We also know that coconut oil contains a type of saturated fat that is actually metabolized differently than the long-chain fatty acids (LCTs) in such foods as steak and cheese. Coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids (MCTs) that diffuse straight from the digestive system into the liver where they are converted to a quick form of energy. There have been multiple studies that have shown that MCTs increase energy expenditure (which equals a greater calorie burn), may result in faster satiety (appetite reduction), and can facilitate weight control when used as a replacement for fats containing LCTs (3). The evidence isn’t overly robust when it comes to human trials and you certainly cannot confer any conclusions from these studies, but it definitely looks promising. Hopefully some well-designed, better controlled studies will shed more light on the subject.
Another area of research that has received a lot of attention is the potential role of coconut oil in the treatment and prevention of Alzheimer’s disease. MCTs can be converted into something called ketones when they are metabolized in the liver. Ketones are an alternative energy source used by the brain when glucose is either not available, or unable to be metabolized (as is suspected to be the case in Alzheimer’s). The theory is that these ketones essentially “feed” the brain cells and help to improve cognitive function (4, 5). Once again, the evidence is very limited and no conclusions can be drawn regarding the relationship between coconut oil and Alzheimer’s, but it is an area that will hopefully get some attention from the scientific community in the future.
With all of this being said, how exactly do you incorporate coconut oil into your diet and how much should you be having? I personally use it (as well as ghee) in all of my high-heat cooking. Do keep in mind that it is slightly sweet, so pairing it with more savory flavors might not be for everyone. I also often use it as a replacement for butter on toast and will even throw a tablespoon into my oatmeal or on a baked sweet potato. Coconut butter, which contains pureed, raw coconut meat, is also delicious used in both of these ways! One word of advice- don’t go crazy in terms of the quantity of coconut oil that you consume. As I alluded to above, it is still a saturated fat. I usually keep it to a tbsp at most. I should also note that I have very normal blood cholesterol levels, so those with familial hypercholesterolemia (excessively high LDL numbers) should consult with their medical provider for specific recommendations regarding saturated fat intake.
2. Hair mask
If you have dry and colored hair like me, then coconut oil should be your best friend. The lauric acid in coconut oil is actually able to penetrate the hair shaft and prevent protein loss (6). This quality makes it perfect for use as a hydrating and strengthening hair mask. I usually leave it on for about 10-30 min, but you can leave it on for as long as you want. Just a heads up (no pun intended…), be sure and wash it out well or you risk looking like an oil slick the next day!
Not only does coconut oil prevent hair damage, it has antifungal properties that help to fight dandruff. Combine 5 drops of tea tree oil with some coconut oil, massage it into your scalp, and leave it on for 20-30min. Do this 2-3 times per week, followed by a gentle shampoo, and you have yourself the perfect natural alternative treatment for a flaky scalp!
Coconut oil is an excellent skin emollient thanks to its fatty acid content. In patients with mild to moderate atopic dermatitis (eczema), coconut oil has been shown to be superior to mineral oil for improving that condition of the skin (7). It also has antibacterial properties that make it great for application to areas where the skin is dry and cracked. Even if you don’t have eczema, coconut oil is a great natural moisturizer. I usually use it only at night since it can be a little bit greasy and love to slather my dry feet in it (thank you flip-flop life for that). One word of advice- if you have never used coconut oil on your skin before, I would suggest you do a patch test on your inner forearm and wait a couple days to ensure you do not have an allergy to it before using it at a whole-body moisturizer.
4. Makeup remover
If you find that conventional makeup removers burn your eyes, try coconut oil. Coconut oil is great at breaking up the water-resistant substances in eye shadow and mascara without irritating the delicate skin around your eyes. Scoop a small amount of oil out of the jar (coconut oil is solid at room temperature), rub it between your fingers, gently massage it around the eyes, then wipe it off with a dry cotton pad. Repeat until you no longer have raccoon eyes.
5. Dental hygiene product
A less illustrious use for coconut oil is as a dental hygiene product. Oil-pulling is something that’s been around for centuries. It is based in Ayurvedic medicine and involves swishing a tablespoon of oil around your mouth for about 20min. Glamorous, right? Not so much.
Regardless, oil-pulling has been shown to reduce plaque formation and plaque-related gingivitis (8). Although any oil can be used for oil-pulling therapy, coconut oil’s anti-fungal, antibacterial, and antiviral properties make it particularly effective. If you do try this, be sure not to swallow the oil (gag). And if 20 min seems to long, even 5-10 min will likely offer some benefit. If you just can’t seem to get past the idea of swishing oil in your mouth, Desert Essence (ADD LINK) makes a great mouthwash that has coconut oil in it. Finally, don’t skip brushing and flossing! Oil-pulling is not a replacement for traditional oral care, rather it is a great supplemental therapy.
One last thing before you go out and buy some coconut oil. Be sure and purchase only unrefined, virgin coconut oil. Refined coconut oil has been extracted from dried coconut meat and is then bleached and deodorized. As a consequence of the refining process, the oil loses some of its beneficial nutrients. Unrefined coconut oil on the other hand, is produced by mechanically pressing raw coconut meat soon after picking. In terms of whether you should purchase organic or conventional coconut oil, it is best to opt for organic varieties. Despite coconut not being a high-risk food when it comes to pesticide contamination, there are many other reasons why organic is better for our health and the health of our planet. Additionally, try and stick with brands that use glass jars rather than plastic due to the environmental and potential health implications of plastic food packaging. Public GreenWise and Nutiva, are both great, readily available varieties of organic, unrefined coconut oil.
Finally, we would love to hear how YOU incorporate coconut oil into your own health routine and what benefits you have seen from doing so! This is by no means an exhaustive list of the potential uses and benefits of coconut oil and we are interested in learning what other talents this tropical nut has!
Continue to Follow Your Gut,