Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Virgin Coconut Oil in the Diabetic Diet

Here's a reposting of an article I wrote in 2010 on the virtues of virgin coconut oil in diabetes diets--still valid today.


Virgin coconut oil is a great addition to diabetic diets, but highly refined coconut oil is to be avoided at all costs. Coconut oil is a good example of the diabetes diet principle that sometimes a good fat and a bad fat can be the same fat. That's also true of some of other common dietary fats.


Bad Fat, Good Fat, Same Fat

The industrially manufactured versions of coconut oil are refined and bleached. To make the final product liquid at room temperature, coconut oil is stripped of its main fatty acid, lauric acid, and then superheated with heavy metals in refinery towers in a process known as hydrogenation. The resulting product can be used  in food manufacture, as also as a lubricant for fan belts and as the basis of biodiesel.

On the other hand, there is probably no kind of fat that is better for your body than virgin coconut oil. It's genuinely helpful in diabetes, in chronic immune deficiencies, and in fighting cancer. It also helps you lose weight. Virgin, minimally processed coconut oil still has the lauric acid, and this fatty acid gives virgin coconut oil some unique health qualities. The health benefits of lauric acid can be explained in terms of molecular size.

Smaller Fat Molecules Healthier Than Larger Fat Molecules

Smaller fat molecules are healthier than larger fat molecules. Lauric acid is a medium-chain fatty acid, also known as an MCFA. Like the fats found in palm oil, whole milk, whole milk yogurt, butter, cream, and cheese, it's a relatively "small" molecule. It's soluble in water, so it won't "sit" in your intestines waiting for bile salts to arrive from the liver to dissolve it. Your liver can use it as fuel without further processing, and the rest of the body can use it for fuel without insulin. It's a kind of fat that won't compete with the sugars you body needs insulin to move out of the bloodstream.

Because MCFA's go directly to the liver, don't have to be decoupled from proteins, and don't depend on insulin levels, they get burned for fuel before other kinds of fat. Even if you eat too many of them, they don't trigger a process creating new baby fat cells, the way some other kinds of fatty acids do (including the otherwise healthy fatty acids found in olive oil).

With coconut oil, cholesterol is not a big consideration. There is no cholesterol in coconut oil, and consuming coconut oil will not raise cholesterol unless you are consuming more calories than you are burning overall.

Coconut oil and its MCFA cousins contain fewer calories than other kinds of fat and they burn more readily, but it's not necessarily a good plan to eat more of them as part of your plan to eat weight.

When Eating Fat Helps You Lose Fat, and When It Doesn't

If you are large enough or active enough that you can lose weight and eat 2,400 calories a day, and you get about 1,200 of those calories just from coconut oil, palm oil, butter, cream, and the milk fat in cheese, yes, you will burn fat a little faster, the equivalent of about 100 calories a day, enough to lose an extra pound a month. If you are trying to lose weight by eating 1,200 calories a day, and you eat 600 calories a day in the form of these healthy fats, you'll lose an extra pound every two months.

If you have been gaining a pound every month or two, incorporating MCFA's into your diet may be just what you need to stop gaining weight. If you are using MCFA's to lose fat, you need to know that this fat will be the "jiggly" subcutaneous fat on your thighs, or giving you jelly-belly, or lying on your "jowls" or just under your skin. It won't be the visceral fat around your inner organs. Losing this fat helps you look better and feel lighter, but it won't necessarily make you a lot healthier.

But that's a whole lot more coconut oil, palm oil, butter, cream, and cheese than your digestive tract can handle without bloating, gas, and diarrhea. It's hugely more fat than any dietitian is ever going to write into your diabetes diet (unless you have kidney disease).

Moreover, if you overeat even these healthy fats, you will still gain weight. You really really don't need to eat more fat to burn more fat. MCFA's are the right kind of fat, but you still need to eat less to weigh less. But if you're wild about coconuts, coconut water will still be OK.

Photo Credit: Ahmedhhs, via Wikimedia Commons.

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