A new study by The Garvan Institute of Medical Research (which now one of Australia’s largest medical research institutions with nearly 500 scientists, students and support staff) with animals demonstrates that a diet rich in coconut oil protects against ‘insulin resistance’ (an impaired ability of cells to respond to insulin) in muscle and fat. The diet also avoids the accumulation of body fat caused by other high fat diets of similar calorie content. Together these findings are important because obesity and insulin resistance are major factors leading to the development of Type 2 diabetes.
The study is also interesting because it helps explain human studies showing that people who incorporate medium chain ‘fatty acids’, such as those found in coconut oil, into their diets can lose body fat. The medium chain fatty acids, like those found in coconut oil, are interesting because they behave very differently to the fats normally found in our diets. Unlike the long chain fatty acids contained in animal fats, medium chain fatty acids are small enough to enter mitochondria – the cells’ energy burning powerhouses – directly, where they can then be converted to energy.
When people eat a high fat diet, their bodies attempt to compensate by increasing their capacity to oxidise fat. The medium chain fatty acid (coconut oil) diet was more effective at increasing the oxidative capacity of muscle than the long chain fatty acid (lard) diet leading to less fat storage in muscle and better insulin action.
If someone is trying to prevent weight gain, we can see they may benefit from substituting oils containing medium chain fatty acids for other oils in their diet, as long as consideration is given to the potential problem of excess fat in the liver.
Unfortunately the downside to eating medium chain fatty acids is that they can lead to fat build up in the liver, an important fact to be taken into consideration by anyone considering using them as a weight loss therapy. Using coconut as a substitute for other oils and using it in moderation is a good idea. Remember that many communities had used coconut oil for daily use for many centuries without any problems. (Islanders have consumed large amounts of coconut oil for many generations without ever encountering diabetes, but when they abandoned it for other foods and oils, the results were disastrous).