There is no doubt that we must eat fat. We need fat in order to absorb certain micro-nutrients (for example, the vitamin A in carrots is only absorbed if eaten with a fat source, such as hummus). Fats supply building blocks for hormones. We need fat for healthy skin, hair and nails. Fat is a vital component of our cell membranes. In fact, our brains are made up of approximately 60% fat and we now know that omega-3 fatty acids can protect against neuroinflammation and cognitive impairment linked to aging.
Not surprisingly, there are fats we benefit from and then there are fats we’d be far better off without. The type of fat we eat makes a dramatic difference in our health. And a healthy runner equals a strong runner.
In this 3-part Fats & Oils series, I’ll explore why we should reach for fats such as coconut or olive oil and steer clear of things like margarine and most processed oils. In this post I’ll talk about why coconut oil is one of my favourite cooking oils. Next week will cover additional fats we want to be eating, such as olives and avocados. And to finish this series up, I’ll discuss which fats and oils we should be avoiding.
If you’ve seen my recipes, you likely noticed coconut oil is included in just about every one. Without knowing why it’s there, you may have been tempted to dismiss the entire recipe or quickly substitute the coconut oil for another fat.
Organic, virgin, cold-pressed and unprocessed coconut oil is pure white and solid at room temperature. When heated, it melts into a crystal clear liquid. Virgin coconut oil carries the faint sweet smell and taste of coconut. It may impart a subtle flavour to your food that you are not accustomed to – however, rest assured that this is something you’ll soon not notice (my husband would not eat my cooking if everything tasted like coconut to him, haha). Ensure you buy virgin (cold-pressed) as the (flavourless) processed types have been subjected to heating, filtration, refining and bleaching – which renders them nutritionally void. As a side note, palm oil is not the same as coconut oil and should be avoided (unless it’s the rarer organic red palm oil).
Here’s the exciting stuff. Why use coconut oil? For three specific and scientifically sound reasons:
1. Stable Under Heat
First, it remains stable under heat which means it’s not subjecting us to free radicals (which damage our cells and delay recovery, not to mention age us faster).
Indeed, coconut oil has the ability to remain stable when exposed to heat, oxygen and light because it is 92% saturated fat (the remainder consists of 6% monounsaturated and 2% polyunsaturated fats). So unlike just about all other fats and oils, it does not oxidize when heated and will not produce free radicals that damage your body’s cells.
Free radicals (or reactive oxygen species, ROS, if you want to get all technical) have been implicated in inflammation, aging, heart disease and cancer, to name only a few of their downsides. Simply put, virgin coconut oil does not form free radicals when used in cooking and baking. You decrease your changes of suffering from inflammation or developing heart disease or cancer. And you’ll look young forever… Well, longer anyway. If you are worried about coconut oil being a saturated fat – don’t be. While it’s true that for years we’ve been told to avoid saturated fats, virgin coconut oil has been shown to have a neutral effect on blood cholesterol and a 2010 study challenged the belief that saturated fats cause heart disease at all.
2. Medium-Chain Triglycerides / Medium-Chain Fatty Acids
Second, it contains medium-chain triglycerides, or medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs), meaning we may be better positioned to fight off viral and bacterial microorganisms. Sixty-four percent of coconut oil is made up of MCFAs (meaning 8 to 12 carbon chains of fatty acids), primarily lauric acid, caprylic acid and capric acid. Both short-chain and medium-chain fatty acids are relatively rare – the majority of foods (animal fats and vegetable oils) contain long-chain fatty acids. Lauric, caprylic and capric acids demonstrate antimicrobial and antiviral properties. Lauric acid has been shown to kill the following (among others):
- measles virus;
- herpes simplex virus;
- influenza virus;
- hepatitis C virus;
- helicobacterpylori bacteria;
- chlamydia trachomatis bacteria;
- staphylococcus aureus bacteria.
Caprylic acid had been shown to be successful in treating fungal infections such as Candida and yeast infections. In short, something as simple as adding coconut oil to your diet on a daily basis may provide you with substantial protection from a wide range of infectious illnesses.
3. Energy Source
Third, the body absorbs MCFAs more rapidly in our digestive tracts than other types of fats, so they are more readily used for energy instead of being stored as fat. This is good news for anyone wishing to lose weight (and studies such as this 2012 review of 14 studies confirm MCTs may be used as an acceptable form of weight control). In fact, it’s a well-known secret in the fitness industry that bodybuilders have being using coconut oil for years as a means to fat loss. And given they hold the lowest body-fat percentages of any group of athletes…
Combine these three reasons to eat coconut oil with the myriad of delicious, wholesome foods I am sure you eat each day, I am confident that coconut oil plays into making us stronger runners. Tune in next week to learn what other fats and oils you need to include in your myriad of delicious, wholesome foods.
Until then… Happy running 🙂
Sarah J Cuff, RNH, PTS