Learn about the many health benefits of coconut oil—from reducing inflammation to burning fat more efficiently.
Rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals, coconuts are incredibly nutritious. These tree nuts provide healthy meat, juice, milk and oil that have fed and nourished people around the world for thousands of years. Nearly a third of the world’s population depends on coconut to some degree. On many islands, coconut is such an important staple that it provides the majority of the food eaten there.
For a tasty brownie recipe made with coconut oil try this Whole-Wheat Coconut Brownies Recipe.
In traditional medicine around the world, coconut is used to treat a wide variety of health problems ranging from skin infections and burns to asthma, bronchitis, fever, flu and more. Coconut oil is of special interest because it possesses healing properties potentially beyond that of any other dietary oil, and is used extensively in traditional medicine among Asian and Pacific populations. Many Pacific Islanders consider coconut oil to be the cure for all illness. The coconut palm is so highly valued by them as a source of food and medicine that it is called “the tree of life.” Wherever the coconut palm grows, the people there have learned of its importance as an effective medicine. Only recently has modern medical science unlocked some of the secrets to coconut’s healing properties and the health benefits of coconut oil.
Modern medical science is now confirming the use of coconut in treating many conditions. Published studies in medical journals show that coconut may provide a wide range of health benefits. Some of these are summarized here:
• Kills viruses that cause influenza, herpes and other illnesses.
• Kills bacteria that cause ulcers, throat infections, urinary tract infections, gum disease, cavities and other diseases. (Learn more about using coconut oil for oral health in What is Oil Pulling?)
• Kills fungi and yeasts that cause candidiasis, ringworm, athlete’s foot, thrush, diaper rash and other infections.
• Expels or kills tapeworms, lice, giardia and other parasites.
• Boosts energy and endurance, helping enhance physical and athletic performance.
• Improves digestion and absorption of other nutrients including vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
• Helps relieve symptoms and reduce health risks associated with diabetes.
• Improves calcium and magnesium absorption and supports the development of strong bones and teeth.
• Helps relieve symptoms associated with gallbladder disease.
• Relieves symptoms associated with Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis and stomach ulcers.
• Improves digestion and bowel function.
• Reduces inflammation.
• Supports tissue healing and repair.
• Supports and aids immune system function.
• Is heart-healthy; improves cholesterol ratio, which reduces risk of heart disease.
• Functions as an antioxidant, helping protect the body from harmful free radicals that promote premature aging and degenerative disease.
• Does not deplete the body’s antioxidant reserves as other oils can do.
• Improves the body’s use of essential fatty acids and protects them from oxidation.
• Is lower in calories than all other fats.
• Supports thyroid function.
• Promotes loss of excess weight by increasing metabolic rate.
• Applied topically, helps form a chemical barrier on the skin to ward off infection.
• Reduces symptoms of psoriasis, eczema and dermatitis.
• Softens skin and helps relieve dryness and flaking.
• Prevents wrinkles, sagging skin and age spots.
• Promotes healthy-looking hair and complexion.
• Provides protection from damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation from the sun.
• Does not form harmful byproducts when heated to normal cooking temperature like other vegetable oils do.
While coconut possesses many health benefits thanks to its fiber and nutritional content, it’s the oil that makes it a remarkable food and medicine. Once believed to be unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content, it is now known that (a) saturated fats aren’t necessarily problematic, and (b) the types of fatty acids in coconut oil are unique and possess many health-promoting properties. (To learn more about dietary fats, read All About Fats.)
What makes coconut oil different from other fats? The difference is in the fat molecule. All fats are composed of molecules called fatty acids. There are two methods of classifying fatty acids: The first is based on saturation—saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Another system of classification is based on molecular size or length of the carbon chain within each fatty acid. In this system, you have short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs), medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) and long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs). Coconut oil is composed predominantly of MCFAs, also known as medium-chain triglycerides, as well as some SCFAs.
The vast majority—98 to 100 percent—of fats in our diets, saturated or unsaturated, from animals or plants, are composed of LCFAs. Both the saturated and unsaturated fat found in meat, milk, eggs and plants (including most vegetable oils) are composed of LCFAs. The size of the fatty acid is important, because our bodies metabolize each fatty acid differently depending on its size. LCFAs, if not used immediately as an energy source, are stored as fat tissue in our bodies. Most of the fat cells in your body are composed of LCFAs.
Coconut oil, composed primarily of MCFAs, has a different effect on the body. These fatty acids are absorbed more efficiently in our GI tracts, and are broken down and used predominantly for energy production and thus seldom end up as body fat. In essence, they produce energy, not fat. MCFAs do not negatively affect cholesterol and help protect against atherosclerosis and heart disease. There are very few good dietary sources of MCFAs. By far the best sources are coconut and palm kernel oils.
Coconut oil can effectively replace a number of products in your kitchen and bathroom.
1. Eat it. Unrefined, virgin, organic coconut oil can be used in place of many other fats. Stir some into your oatmeal. Replace the oil in a pan of brownies. Try a coconut oil pie crust. Refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point than unrefined, making it a better choice for frying. Unfortunately, some of the health benefits are then lost.
2. Use as a conditioning treatment for your hair. Rub the oil through your hair and let it soak in for a while before rinsing it out in the shower.
3. Use as a moisturizer for your body. Coconut oil is good for your whole body, including your face and the delicate skin underneath your eyes.
Bruce Fife is a naturopathic doctor, the author of The Coconut Oil Miracle (Avery, 2013) and founder of the online Coconut Research Center.