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Is Coconut Oil a 'Superfood'

22/04/2014 15:42 BST | Updated 22/06/2014 10:59 BST

Much has been written about Coconut oil and it is certainly changing the view that hard fats are all bad for us. It has been talked about as aiding fat loss, helping heart health and even pushing athletic performance.

I personally started using it for all my cooking a couple of years ago. But what are the benefits of Coconut oil.

Coconut oil has been demonized in the past because it contains saturated fat. In fact, coconut oil is one of the richest sources of saturated fat known to man, with almost 90% of the fatty acids in it being saturated.

However, new data is showing that saturated fats are not as harmful as we were led to believe. Over the last few years there have been several huge studies that included hundreds of thousands of people, aiming to prove that the whole "artery-clogging" idea was actually a myth.

Additionally, coconut oil doesn't contain your average saturated fat, like you would find in cheese or steak.

They contain a type of fat called Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs) - which are fatty acids of a medium length.

Most of the fatty acids in the diet are so-called long-chain fatty acids, but the medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil are metabolized differently.

They go straight to the liver from the digestive tract, where they are used as a quick source energy or turned into so-called ketone bodies which help fat usage in the body and can have therapeutic effects on brain disorders like epilepsy and Alzheimer's.

As a result coconut oil is a great source of energy and helps the liver convert body-stored fat as an energy supply.

For years we have been told to watch the volume of fat we eat and yet in some parts of the world, coconut is a dietary staple that people have thrived on for many generations.

The best example of such a population is the Tokelauans, which live in the South Pacific.

They eat over 60% of their calories from coconuts and are the biggest consumers of saturated fat in the world.

The Tokelauans are incredibly healthy people and have never had any cases of Heart disease.

Therefore the evidence would tend to suggest that high levels of Medium Chain Triglycerides, like coconut oil, are actually incredibly good for our heart health.

Battling obesity is one of the other claims that are made from Coconut Oil and obesity is currently one of the biggest health problems in the world.

The argument here is that it is not just the amount of calories that you consume but actually the type.

It is a fact that different foods affect our bodies and hormones in different ways. In this regard, a calorie is NOT a calorie.

The medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) in coconut oil can increase energy expenditure compared to the same amount of calories from longer chain fats.

One study found that 15-30 grams of MCTs per day increased 24 hour energy expenditure by 5%, totalling about 120 calories per day.

Therefore changing your choice of oils to coconut oil can actually have a greater metabolic effect.

Another interesting feature of coconut oil is that it can reduce your hunger.

This may be related to the way the fatty acids in it are metabolized, because ketone bodies can have an appetite reducing effect.

In one study, varying amounts of medium and long chain triglycerides were fed to a group of healthy males.

The men eating the most MCTs ate 256 fewer calories per day, on average.

Another study performed on a group of healthy males discovered that those who ate the most MCTs at breakfast ate significantly fewer calories at lunch.

Athletic performance is another of the Coconut oil, high fat, claims. Theketogenic (very low carb, very high fat) diet is currently being tested and studied for use with Ultra endurance athletes.

The theory being that for athletes that require efficient fat burning over a long duration, using a diet that encourages efficient fat burning gives better energy supply and prevents sugar energy deficiency and the effect of "hitting the wall".

If you look at the work being done by the likes of Udo Erasmus with performance athletes the positive effects on performance and also injury prevention are really starting to show the way forward.

One of the biggest claims and most dramatic claims of Coconut oil is the positive effect on cholesterol and reduction in heart disease risk profile

Coconut oil is loaded with saturated fats, which actually do not harm the blood lipid profile like previously thought.

Saturated fats raise HDL (the good) cholesterol and change the LDL cholesterol to a type with little effect on the blood profile.

In one study performed on a group of 180 women, coconut oil reduced Total and LDL cholesterol while increasing HDL compared to soybean oil.

There are also rat studies showing that coconut oil reduces triglycerides, total and LDL cholesterol, increases HDL and improves blood coagulation factors and antioxidant status.

This improvement in cardiovascular risk factors should theoretically lead to a reduced risk of heart disease over the long term.

Finally given that coconut oil can reduce appetite and increase fat burning, it makes sense that it can also help you lose weight.

Coconut oil appears to be especially effective in reducing abdominal fat, which lodges in the abdominal cavity and around organs.

This is the most dangerous fat of all and is directly related to an increase in many Western diseases.

One study of a group of women with abdominal obesity, supplementing with 30 mL (1 ounce) of Coconut oil per day lead to a significant reduction in both BMI and waist circumference in a period of 12 weeks.

Another study in Obese males noted a reduction in waist circumference of 2.86 cm (1.1 inches) after 4 weeks of 30 mL (1 ounce) of coconut oil per day.

Therefore maybe the claims of Coconut oil being a Superfood are not far from the truth and it would certainly make sense for us all to start replacing our cooking oils for Coconut oil and seeing some of the benefits outlined here.