Coconut as a part of a healthy diet
Coconut healthy diet
A balanced diet should contain a variety of components from all the major food groups. We need to consume an adequate amount of the nutrients needed for growth, which include lipids or fats, to remain healthy and to control diseases such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and diabetes. However the general assumption among people is that all fats are bad and they get deposited in the arteries and block the blood circulation. If fat is excluded from the diet, several life threatening consequences may arise including growth retardation, infertility and early death. Fat is an essential fuel and major energy source and constituents of cell membrane. Lipids also serve as hormones and mediators in electron transport. Further, these fats will act as the medium for the fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) needed for healthy body functions.
Coconut oil on table close-up
Lipid molecules in Saturated fats (SFA) are virtually “saturated”, and are without any double bonds between carbon-carbon molecules of the fatty acid carbon chain. We can find these saturated fatty acids from animal products such as meat, dairy and eggs as well as from some vegetable oils such as palm and coconut oils. Unsaturated fats (USFA) have one or more double bonds located between carbon molecules of the fatty acid chan. Most oils, except coconut and palm oils contains high percentages of unsaturated fats. Studies have shown that certain unsaturated fats are effective and essential in preventing coronary heart diseases (CHD) (heart attacks) and strokes.
“Trans fats” are chemically processed fats which are found in oils when they are subjected to high heat treatments. When unsaturated fats are heated, the double bonds (unsaturation) are broken to facilitate the entry of hydrogen atoms. In this process of adding hydrogen atoms will change the remaining double bonds within the molecule (producing “trans” isomer instead of naturally present “cis” isomer) into what is known as “trans fats”. Substantial evidence indicates that consumption of trans fat increases the risk of coronary heart disease (CHD), particularly with the etiology of cardio vascular disease.
Coconut oil is a very stable oil at room temperatures because it is resistant to rancidity. This stability arises from the fact that coconut oil is comprised of triglycerides made out of medium-chain saturated fatty acids such as Lauric, Caproic, Caprylic and Myristic. Because of this high content of saturated fatty acids (more than 80%) in coconut oil, the consumption of coconut oil is therefore believed to be a risk factor for CHD. However, this theory was challenged and defeated successfully by the new evidence of scientific research. The understanding of the role of saturated fats in cardiovascular disease risk has changed over time. Coconut oils have a higher percentage of saturated fats of shorter molecular lengths. The body treats them differently than it does for longer-chain fatty acids. Coconut oil contains significant amounts of medium-chain fatty acids which are advantageous and they are absorbed in the gut directly and transferred to liver directly through the portal vein without undergoing re-esterification. A majority of these fatty acids do not contribute to the “chylomicrons” that circulate through the general blood system. These medium and short chain fatty acids burn quickly to generate energy within the liver cells. They do not produce dangerous “Trans Fats” during the process of cooking. Although the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil are saturated, they do not pose a cardiovascular risk as in longer chain saturated fatty acids. Coconut oil also contains antioxidants, vitamin E and polyphenols as well. There are enough scientific evidence to show that moderate consumption of coconut oil does not cause dyslipidemia (abnormal cholesterol in blood) and the insulin resistance, which is a condition that may lead to diabetes. This exception is especially true for virgin coconut oil. The medium-chain triglycerides in virgin coconut oil will increase desirable HDL-cholesterol and decreased amount of total cholesterol, triglycerides and reduces LDL oxidation which is an important risk factor for atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries).
The value of medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil is emerging in the treatment of nervous diseases. In Alzheimer’s disease people develop unexplained loss of the ability of brain nerve cells to use blood sugar (glucose) as an energy source. In the absence of a viable alternative energy source of ketone bodies brain cells cannot survive. Research evidence available on patients with Alzheimer’s have been helped by incorporating virgin coconut oil as a ketogenic diet (ketone bodies generating diet). In recent years, neurologists have been using ketogenic diets (based on coconut oil) successfully to control seizure frequency and intensity in patients who are not adequately responsive to their usual anti-seizure pharmaceutical drugs.
Dr. Ananda Chandrasekara
Registered Nutritionist (Nutrition Society Australia)
PHD in Human Nutrition and Clinical Biochemistry (Sydney University)