In my opinion, one of the best "supplements" to gain popularity in the past few years has been coconut oil. Sure, it's a food and has been used (along with palm oil) for a long time. However, due to it's physiological benefits and high smoke point for cooking, it is often touted as a supplement, rather than simply a part of a normal diet. Coconut oil seems to scare people off, though.....as if it is some strange material that fell from space. "How do I use it?", "What does it taste like?", "Coconuts....seriously?!". I don't see what is so strange about using a product from coconuts to cook with. We cook with oil squeezed from olives, which are a fruit. We drizzle oil crushed from almonds, hazelnuts and walnuts on our salads. Heck, we even take cream from cows, churn it until the fat cells break and mix with air and then add enzymes to make butter. So maybe coconuts aren't such a strange fat source. Ok, that is settled, in my mind at least.
The first issue needing addressing is that coconut oil is a saturated fat. A FULLY saturated fat to boot! However, coconut oil is about 60% Medium Chain Triglycerides which have some awesome effects in the body and are quite unique in the world of fats. One of the benefits of consuming fats is that they are a concentrated source of energy and provide longer lasting caloric energy than carbohydrates or protein. What some raise as an issue though, and what your college nutrition professor will tell you, is that they are absorbed too slowly to be used as an immediate source of energy and therefore are likely to be stored as fat.
The fate of dietary fats in our diet differs from proteins and carbohydrates. They take a much longer path to get into our circulation. When you ingest proteins and carbohydrates, they are absorbed through the small intestine right into the bloodstream and then into the liver where the excess can be processed. Long-chain fatty acids however, like most of the kind we ingest actually diffuse through our small intestine into the lymph system first. The lymphatic system is a filtering system in our bodies, absorbing and excreting dead cells, excess proteins, bacteria and so on. It runs through our entire bodies with filtering sites called lymph nodes. Since this is a long system, dietary fats take a while to move through the lymph system before being sent to the blood and then the liver. in fact, lypmh fluid is usually clear, but after a meal containing a significant amount of fat, it turns opaque. Pretty cool (or gross). This long ride through the lymph provides more opportunities for the dietary fats to be stored as body fat because it cannot be used so readily as a fuel source.
This is the theory, however, and there isn't much direct evidence showing that dietary fat is simply too slow an energy source with the fate of being stored as bodyfat. As long as calories are in check, dietary fat is going to be used as an energy source, it will just take longer to be used as energy, and that is not a bad thing. Your body is constantly storing and releasing fatty acids from body stores depending on energy needs and food intake so saying ingestion of dietary fat is a one way street is just short sighted. It's like using your debit card for purchases. Sometimes you take money out when you buy things(burning fat for fuel) but other times you deposit when there is excess cash flow(store excess calories). It is in constant exchange. Think of glucose and amino acids (carbs and protein) as cash. It's in your pocket and you spend what you have when you have it, no waiting whatsoever. Long chain fatty acids are more like credit cards; the money is in the account it just takes a bit longer to process and see the change in your funds. The potential issue, in fat storage as well as potential debt, however, is when we overuse the slower system and accrue some debt(or fat storage). But overusing the slower system really depends on one additional thing, our overuse of the faster system at the same time.
Lucky for us, though, that our body is much more complex and intelligent than a bank account and can handle processing different energy sources at different times, both in calorie excess as well as deficit. The only real issue for most people is consuming lots of carbohydrates with lots of fat. The large insulin release shuts off fat burning, the glucose makes it to our tissues a whole lot quicker than fat, meeting most of our calorie needs and the dietary fat we ingested doesn't have much of a choice but to be stored as fat, especially in excess calorie consumption. I think of this phenomena as the Dunkin Donuts approach. Combining high sugar with high fat drinks and snacks leading to one thing: fat gain. They do it because their coffee isn't that great so it takes tons of cream and sugar to make it palatable. But the result is that it isn't really higher carbohydrates or higher fat that causes this, it is the combination of the two. Cash and credit.
But let's say for the sake of argument that there is some truth to most long-chain dietary fats being too darn slow. Enter medium chain triglycerides, especially those found in coconut oil. Medium chain triglycerides (MCT's) do not need to enter the lymph and diffuse across the small intestine directly to the liver where they are often immediately oxidized for energy. This preference by the body for burning it immediately as fuel means it has less of a propensity to be stored as body fat and can be used as an immediate fuel source. MCT's are also easily converted by the liver into ketones. Ketones are released by the liver during longer periods between meals and are used a brain fuel. Ketones in the system also temporarily shift the body into "fat burning" mode, as ketones are what the liver converts glycerol into when metabolizing bodyfat. Ketones are also more easily metabolized by those with insulin resistance, so it makes for a pretty handy fuel source.
Now, I don't advocate getting all your fats from MCT's simply because saturated fats from grass-fed animal sources and cold water fish provide many essential fatty acids for cell and brain health. Also, monounsaturated fats are linked with higher HDL cholesterol levels while polyunsaturated fats (Omega-3s and 6s) are necessary for cell permeability, memory and a host of other functions.
I (personally) typically consume fat from just a handful of sources to make sure I am getting a good balance of fats. I like using grass-fed beef and butter as well as eggs for saturated fats and Omega-3s, almonds and extra virgin olive oil for mono and poly unsaturated fats and coconut oil for MCTs. I think butter is basically the best and only way to cook eggs, so that is my main use for it right there. Almonds and olive oil for salad and light sauteing. Coconut oil I tend to rotate back and forth between meals while cooking with olive oil just to make sure I don't use too much of one or the other.
Coconut oil, however is almost always my go-to fat when consuming alongside carbohydrates. So, if I am making some Jasmine or Basmati rice, baking some sweet potatoes or pan frying some white potatoes, i almost always use coconut oil. The reason for this is that since carbohydrates are so readily used as fuel after ingestion (or stored as bodyfat when in excess), they can tend to make the fate of fat ingestion to go to bodyfat stores. While dietary fats are slowly plodding through our lymph system, the carbohydrates have already made their way into the bloodstream, spiked insulin (which inhibits fat burning) and set the stage for fats to be stored as bodyfat. This is the reason your college nutrition professor doesn't like dietary fat, because the average American consumes lots of fat and carbohydrates together, making it very difficult for the body to burn dietary fat when glucose and insulin levels are high.
My first recommendation would be to stop consuming meals super high in both carbohydrates and fats to avoid this. The second is to use coconut oil when cooking with carbohydrates because they are readily used as fuel, similar to carbohydrates and oxidized quickly, making the likelihood of their fat storage very low. The best time for this is post-workout when making some rice or potatoes and using coconut oil to prepare them. You still get to consume food that isn't dry and bland, but avoid some of the nastier side effects of consuming fats and carbohydrates together.
Don't let this recommendation pull you into obsessiveness about your meal combinations, but keep it in mind the next time your reach for olive oil on your food, post-workout especially. Coconut oil also has a pretty high smoke point, so you can aggressively saute food in it without fear of burning or oxidizing less stable fats like olive oil.
In any event, do not touch I Can't Believe It's Not Butter (I can believe its not), corn oil, soybean oil or any other cheap oil with a ten-foot-pole. Instead, focus on getting a good mix of nuts, extra virgin olive oil, grass fed butter and meat and try implementing coconut into your diet here and there to reap some of the benefits. Experiment and find what works for you. I personally love slow-roasted sweet potatoes with salt, cinnamon and chili powder with some coconut oil melted on top. But hey, that's just me.
What Would a Sensible Meal Combination Look Like?
I love the simplicity of the Precision Nutrition system and Dr. John Berardi. I encourage people to check out his site and browse through articles and blogs. Before I recommend that people start counting macronutrients, I want them to get comfortable seeing what recommended meals should look like. Below, I am going to show some sample pictures from the PN site so you can visualize what good meal combinations look like. You'll notice (and this is what I tel people too), that portions are measured by portions of your hand, thumb and palm. This is good for portions pertaining to body size and you'll notice it keeps your level of fats/carbohydrates in check when eating them in the same meal, so you don't end up with a high carb-high fat combination on your hands.
Note that these are STARTING bases. If you have lots of bodyfat to lose, then most likely the portion of starchy carbohydrates will go down and be replaced by vegetables. Fat might then increase, if necessary, to 1 or 2 thumb portions, depending on size, activity level etc. Remember that the portions of fat and starchy carbohydrates are inverse. The more starchy carbs go up, the fat will come down. So lets say a maintenance meal you might eat any time of the day is one palm of starchy carbs and 1 thumb of fat. After a workout, your first meal might end up being two palms of starchy carbs and the fat would be dialed down to 1/2 thumb. Pretty simple. Protein and veggies can pretty much stay constant.
So my little tweak to this is to sub out your nuts/olive oil/butter in your starchier carbohydrate meals for coconut oil. Now you are making the best of both worlds by avoiding the slower transit of long-chain fatty acids alongside large servings of carbohydrates. Then, just make up your other fats in your non-workout meals.
3. St-Onge, MP. Jones, PJ. Physioligical effects of edium-chain triglycerides: Potential agents in the prevention of obesity.