Superfoods are those foods that claim a lot of benefits to the body, such as a big load of nutrients or the improvement or protection of certain bodily systems. One of the newest foods to claim the title of superfood is coconut oil.

Coconut oil is fat derived from the meat of coconuts.

It may, at first, seem odd that something 100% fat is being touted as a superfood. Medical News Today explains why the fat in coconut oil may be so beneficial, stating:

“Coconut oil has an unusually high amount of medium-chain fatty acids or triglycerides (MCFAs or MCTs), which are harder for our bodies to convert into stored fat and easier for them to burn off than long-chain fatty acids or triglycerides (LCFAs or LCTs).”

Most animal-derived fats, like the fat in meats or cheeses, have more long-chain fatty acids. This means that, in comparison, coconut oil might be less likely to have some of the negative effects of other types of fats.

There are, however, two types of coconut oil, and the differences between the two types are very important. Commercial or partially hydrogenated coconut oils are chemically extracted. Then the oil is pasteurized and hydrogenized, which extends the shelf life. Unfortunately, this also changes the way the coconut oil works in the body. The partially hydrogenated coconut oil then has the negative effects of other partially hydrogenized fats found in processed foods.

Virgin coconut oil, on the other hand, is extracted without high temperatures or chemicals. The extraction process might include wet or dry milling, squeezing, or a centrifuge, but the end result is the same. Unrefined, virgin coconut oil is the type that’s considered a potential superfood.

The health benefits that may be associated with virgin coconut oil are numerous and varied.

Even before coconut oil was branded a superfood, it had some benefits for certain people. Dietitians sometimes recommend using coconut oil when cooking, instead of other fats, for those with compromised fat digestion or sensitive gastrointestinal tracts. This is because the properties that make it more difficult for the body to convert coconut oil into stored fat also mean that it’s digested differently than other fats.

One of the claimed benefits of coconut oil is an improved immune response, thanks to a specific type of compound present in it. Phenolic compounds are thought to have strong antioxidant properties.

Coconut oil might also aid in weight loss. In addition to its easier-to-burn-off nature, this could be because it has slightly fewer calories per gram than other fats. In fact, studies have shown that medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) like coconut oil are more effective than olive oil at facilitating weight loss. Additionally, in a study that compared soybean oil and coconut oil, both oils were effective at facilitating weight loss, but the coconut oil also reduced waist size and tended to raise the good kind of cholesterol, HDL. This suggests that coconut oil might also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease.

The body’s response to glucose and insulin might also be improved by coconut oil. Some studies have shown improved sensitivity to insulin in diabetics. Additionally, glucose metabolism in the brain might be improved by coconut oil. If this is the case, another one of coconut oil’s claims – that it reduces the risk or severity of Alzheimer’s – might just be true, since some forms of Alzheimer’s are rooted in declining glucose metabolism in the brain.

Additional potential benefits of virgin coconut oil include:

  • Burns calories during digestion
  • Kills bacteria and viruses
  • Reduces epileptic seizures
  • Has cosmetic benefits

The potential benefits of coconut oil don’t necessarily mean that it should become the cornerstone of anyone’s entire diet.

Keep in mind that coconut oil is still a fat, so it’s not recommended to take in massive amounts of it. In fact, the American Heart Association still recommends limiting all saturated fats, including coconut oil, regardless of its potential as a superfood.

However, as compared to other fats, coconut oil may have less negative effects and a lot more potential benefits. For this reason, it might be worth substituting other fats with coconut oil while cooking. Very unhealthy fats, like partially hydrogenated margarine or shortening, could certainly be replaced by coconut oil to yield a much healthier end result.

Coconut oil should not be the central feature of a weight-loss, heart-healthy, or other health-centered lifestyle. Rather, it should complement the other healthy habits already in place to truly show its benefits. For instance, one study demonstrated that both exercise and coconut oil can lower the blood pressure in hypertensive rats (or rats with high blood pressure), but the rats’ blood pressure only reached normal, healthy levels when they both exercised and ate coconut oil.

Coconut oil doesn’t just come in handy in the kitchen. It’s also helpful as a cosmetic or hair product, when doing jobs around the house, or even when caring for a pet.

When cooking, it’s as easy as trading other fats for coconut oil. For example, instead of melting butter over rice or spreading butter on toast, use a little coconut oil. Rather than drizzling other oils over roast chicken or frying fish in other fats, use coconut oil. The only warning from Whole Foods Market about cooking with coconut oil: it burns at lower temperatures than most oils, so be a little careful of heat levels when stir-frying, sautéing, and baking.

Also keep in mind that coconut oil has a very mild coconut flavor, so those who aren’t coconut fans might not love cooking with it as much. For many recipes, such as desserts and tropical entrees, the flavor imparted by coconut oil can actually complement the dish.

Have you ever tried cooking with coconut oil?

Image by Hafiz Issadeen via Flickr

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