Is Coconut Oil Good for You?

Coconut oil is not health food

Late­ly, food fad­dists have been claim­ing that coconut oil is a health food. They claim that it will help you lose weight. In real­i­ty, coconut oil is as fat­ten­ing as any oth­er fat. Some peo­ple even claim that coconut oil can cure Alzheimer’s dis­ease. In real­i­ty, coconut oil can pro­mote ath­er­o­scle­ro­sis, which is an impor­tant cause of vas­cu­lar demen­tia. Also, fats of any kind tend to make your body less sen­si­tive to insulin. For this rea­son, eat­ing coconut oil would prob­a­bly make type 2 dia­betes worse. Coconut oil could even make Alzheimer’s dis­ease worse. Alzheimer’s dis­ease seems to be relat­ed to insulin resis­tance in the brain.

So why are peo­ple pro­mot­ing coconut oil for brain health? They know that coconut oil is part of a diet for chil­dren with epilep­sy. How­ev­er, they do not under­stand why this diet is used.

What is epilepsy?

Epilep­sy is a con­di­tion in which peo­ple suf­fer from seizures. A seizure is an elec­tri­cal storm with­in the brain. In ancient times, epilep­sy was called “the falling sick­ness” because it can make you pass out. How­ev­er, “par­tial” seizures may sim­ply cause altered men­tal states or uncon­trolled move­ments of the body. Many ancient peo­ple thought that epilep­sy was caused by evil spir­its. How­ev­er, the ancient Greek physi­cian Hip­pocrates explained that epilep­sy was an ordi­nary phys­i­cal dis­ease, with phys­i­cal caus­es. The ancients knew that epilep­tics had few­er seizures while they were fast­ing. Of course, you can­not fast for­ev­er. You have to eat some­thing even­tu­al­ly, or you will starve to death. Once the epilep­tic per­son start­ed eat­ing again, the seizures would start up again.

By the 1920s, physi­cians were look­ing for a way to mim­ic some of the effects of fast­ing, with­out starv­ing the patient to death. They knew that fast­ing caus­es keto­sis, which is the buildup of chem­i­cals called ketone bod­ies in the blood­stream. But they knew that you could also get keto­sis from eat­ing an extreme­ly low-car­bo­hy­drate diet. For rea­sons that are still unclear, keto­sis sup­press­es seizures in many peo­ple with epilep­sy. For this rea­son, an extreme­ly high-fat, low-car­bo­hy­drate “keto­genic” diet has been used since the ear­ly 1920s for the man­age­ment of treat­ment-resis­tant epilep­sy in chil­dren.

What causes ketosis?

Why does an extreme­ly low-carb diet cause keto­sis? Even in the 1920s, it was obvi­ous that keto­sis meant that the liv­er was mak­ing huge amounts of sug­ar. The excess sug­ar in a dia­bet­ic person’s blood­stream did not result from eat­ing a high-car­bo­hy­drate diet. Instead, much of it was made out of pro­tein from the food and from the body’s tis­sues. If there is no insulin in the blood, the alpha cells in the pan­creas assume that the blood sug­ar lev­el must be low. As a result, the alpha cells will make huge amounts of a hor­mone called glucagon. Glucagon tells the liv­er to make glu­cose. Nor­mal­ly, this brings blood sug­ar lev­els back up to nor­mal. An over­dose of insulin kills peo­ple by pre­vent­ing their pan­creas from releas­ing glucagon. That’s why glucagon is used as an anti­dote to insulin over­dose.

The liv­er makes a lot of glu­cose out of a starch called glyco­gen. How­ev­er, the liv­er can also make glu­cose out of non­car­bo­hy­drates. In par­tic­u­lar, it can make sug­ar out of some amino acids (the build­ing blocks of pro­tein). When the liv­er is mak­ing a lot of glu­cose, it may also start to use up a sub­stance called oxaloac­etate. How­ev­er, it needs that mate­r­i­al for burn­ing fats effi­cient­ly. So if the liv­er is mak­ing sug­ar real­ly fast, the body can­not burn fats well. As a result, the liv­er pro­duces more ketone bod­ies as waste prod­ucts. Keto­sis means that these ketone bod­ies are build­ing up in the blood­stream.

Is ketosis good or bad?

If you are fast­ing, a lit­tle bit of keto­sis is a good thing. Your brain can use some ketone bod­ies as an alter­na­tive fuel source. But the severe keto­sis caused by untreat­ed type 1 dia­betes is a life-threat­en­ing emer­gency. Dia­bet­ic ketoaci­do­sis is a com­bi­na­tion of severe keto­sis, high blood sug­ar, dehy­dra­tion, and elec­trolyte imbal­ances.

You can get keto­sis from fast­ing. How­ev­er, you can also get it from an extreme­ly low-car­bo­hy­drate diet. Thus, chil­dren with severe epilep­sy are some­times fed an extreme­ly low-car­bo­hy­drate (keto­genic) diet. This keto­genic diet has some impor­tant draw­backs. It stunt children’s growth. It can also lead to some severe side effects, includ­ing inflam­ma­tion of the pan­creas. Also, chil­dren often hate the diet. The food is yucky, and their choic­es are lim­it­ed. Eat­ing even a lit­tle bit of car­bo­hy­drate stops the keto­sis. For this rea­son, it is hard to get chil­dren to stick to the diet well enough to get ben­e­fits.

Medium-chain triglycerides

Most of the fat in our food con­sists of triglyc­erides that con­tain long-chain fat­ty acids. How­ev­er, short- and medi­um-chain fat­ty acids are bet­ter at pro­duc­ing keto­sis. The short­er-chain fat­ty acids go straight to the liv­er from the intes­tine. The longer fat­ty acids go through a dif­fer­ent path­way, which does not go through the liv­er before it reach­es the gen­er­al cir­cu­la­tion. Coconut oil is a rel­a­tive­ly rich source of medi­um-chain fat­ty acids. So if you add coconut oil to the keto­genic diet, you can let the child eat a lit­tle bit of car­bo­hy­drate and a bit more pro­tein.

Alzheimer’s disease

Since coconut oil is so good at gen­er­at­ing ketone bod­ies, there has been some inter­est in it for patients with Alzheimer’s dis­ease. In Alzheimer’s dis­ease, the brain is hav­ing trou­ble with using glu­cose for ener­gy. For this rea­son, some researchers sus­pect that hav­ing more ketone bod­ies in the blood­stream would help. Yet this the­o­ry remains unproven.

Soci­eties that eat high-carb, low-fat diets have low­er rates of Alzheimer’s dis­ease. I explain this fact in my book  Thin Dia­betes, Fat Dia­betes: Pre­vent Type 1, Cure Type 2.

Epilepsy in children

The keto­genic diet is use­ful in cas­es of child­hood epilep­sy that do not respond to any oth­er treat­ment. How­ev­er, it is not a health-pro­mot­ing diet for the gen­er­al pub­lic. No soci­ety on earth has ever sub­sist­ed on a keto­genic diet. Even Inu­it (Eski­mo) peo­ple, who lived on fat­ty meats and fish dur­ing the win­ter, did not go into keto­sis unless they were fast­ing. Also, high-fat, low-car­bo­hy­drate diets lead to rapid aging and ear­ly death, even if they do not pro­duce keto­sis.

A keto­genic diet may be good for some chil­dren with epilep­sy. How­ev­er, it is not a healthy diet. Thus, it would be bad for peo­ple who do not have epilep­sy. If you don’t have epilep­sy, you would be bet­ter off eat­ing a low-fat, high-car­bo­hy­drate diet of starch­es and veg­eta­bles.

Coconut vs coconut oil

The soci­eties that eat lots of coconut tend to have low rates of heart dis­ease. How­ev­er, their over­all intake of fat and cho­les­terol is low. Most of their calo­ries come from car­bo­hy­drates (starch­es and sug­ars). Rice and starchy veg­eta­bles (such as sweet pota­toes and poi) make up the bulk of their diet. Since these peo­ple live in the trop­ics, they also eat a lot of fruit and veg­eta­bles. Some Poly­ne­sians eat a lot of coconut. How­ev­er, they main­ly eat whole coconut, rather than coconut oil. The fiber in the coconut helps to low­er their cho­les­terol. Fiber binds to cho­les­terol in the intes­tine. Thus, fiber can car­ry the cho­les­terol out of the body.

If you want to lose weight and pro­tect your heart and brain, don’t eat coconut oil. Instead, remove oils and ani­mal-source foods from your diet. The pop­u­la­tions that eat a low-fat, plant-based diet have the best chance at a long and healthy life.

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