Why You Should…Try Coconut Oil By Alyssa Henry

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Coconut oil is having a makeover.  Although known in the Philippines as ‘the tree of life’ and referred to in India as ‘kalpa vrisksha’ (literally ‘the tree which provides all necessities of life’), coconut oil’s reputation in the West has been dragged through the mud for the last 30 years.  Purported to be the ultimate ‘artery-clogging oil’, not to mention its use as a tanning oil, coconut oil is now experiencing a revival as researchers continue to uncover its incredible health benefits.

Before I go any further, let’s get one thing straight.  That squeezie-bottle of “Island Paradise Coconut Oil” gathering dust at the back of your bathroom cabinet?  That’s the hydrogenated version popular among melanoma seekers in the 1980s.  For cooking and health benefits it’s important to buy a virgin coconut oil – you can find it at your local health food shop or online (try http://lovingearth.net).

Coconut oil has been used as the foundation of cookery, daily life and medicine among people living in coconut growing regions for generations (such as the Philippines, islands in the Pacific, India and elsewhere).  The oil is extracted from the meat of mature coconuts and can be used in countless ways for countless purposes, just a few of which I’ll outline here.

Nature’s Own Beautifier

Want skin like Miranda Kerr?  The health-queen supermodel calls this oil “the one thing I can’t live without”, taking four teaspoons a day in her cooking, on her salads, in her green tea and on her skin.  Do you need any more convincing than that?  Try massaging your body from head to toe with coconut oil and using a teaspoon as a hair treatment once a week.  Experts say it strengthens the underlying tissues, speeds healing, cures dry and scaly skin and improves skin elasticity.

Sunscreen…Yes, Really

Ok, I know I just referred to coconut oil as the number one tool for those seeking skin cancer, but yes, you can use this wonderful little oil for sun protection!  With a SPF rating of around 4, it’s definitely won’t prevent burning if you’re planning to bathe in the sun for hour upon hour – but from personal experience, this stuff actually works.  And isn’t packed with any of the nasty chemicals that conventional sunscreens have.  

Saturated Fat, Isn’t That Bad?

Well, not always.  Just as there are different kinds of polyunsaturated fats there are different kinds of saturated fats, and the naturally occurring saturated fat in coconut oil does not have a harmful effect on cholesterol.  In fact, research suggests it may even prevent heart disease!  How?  Brace yourself for a (quick!) science lesson.  The secret to coconut oil’s health properties is that it’s mostly made up of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs).  

The majority (even up to 98%) of our dietary fat comes from long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs), which are, as the name suggests, longer than MCFAs.  This difference in size means that the process of digestions is different for each type. LCFAs pass through the stomach and are mainly digested in the intestine using pancreatic digestive enzymes and bile to break down the chains into individual fatty acids that are then circulated around the body through the bloodstream.  As they circulate, small particles of fat are released and can collect and clog your artery walls.

On the other hand, because MCFAs are smaller they are already broken down into individual fatty acids by the time they leave the stomach for the intestine, not requiring enzymes for digestion and thus reducing strain on your digestive system.  Further, because MCFAs are digested so easily, they are sent directly from your intestine to your liver where they are used to produce energy rather than being stored as fat.

Phew!  Got that?  So basically due to its different digestive process, coconut oil is immediately utilised by the body as an energy source rather than being stored as fat.  Because of this, and its ability to ramp up your metabolism, coconut oil can actually help you lose weight.  Yep, you read that right.  Eat fat to lose fat.  Researchers at McGill University in Canada have even found that if you were to substitute all LCFAs in our diet (such as canola, soybean and other cooking oils) for MCFAs (such as coconut oil), you could lose up to 12 kilos in a year! (Journal of Nutrition 2002, Physiological effects of medium chain triglycerides potential agents in the prevention of obesity).

The Best Cooking Oil

We’ve spoken about this in FITNESS mag before but it’s worth repeating.  Most oils are highly sensitive to heat and light, turning rancid and even carcinogenic when exposed to these to too great a degree. Yes, we’re looking at you olive, canola and vegetable oils.  While fine for light-heats or salad dressings, try to avoid using these for cooking, instead cooking with coconut oil which is stable and retains its health properties to a very high heat.

Oil Pulling – The Ultimate Detox?

You’d be forgiven for thinking this ancient Ayurvedic medicinal practice sounds a little, well, kooky.  Swishing oil around your mouth for twenty minutes then spitting it out? And this will give you whiter teeth, healthier gums, cleared sinuses, decreased allergies and clearer skin, among others things? Bear with me for a moment.  

Right now, there are approximately 10 billion microorganisms living in your mouth – some good, some bad.  The problem is, our mouths are the passageways to our bodies, so when bad bacteria is growing in your mouth, every time you breath, eat or drink, this bacteria travels through your body, spreading disease and infection.  Oil pulling works by removing the disease-causing microorganisms and toxins in the mouth.  How?  Well, the cell membranes of those microorganisms are composed predominantly of lipids (fatty acids).  What happens when you mix oil and water?  They separate.  What happens when you mix two oils?  They bind together.  The fatty membranes of these microbes hidden in the crevices of your mouth are attracted to the oil and bind themselves into the solution.  Good news as brushing your teeth only reaches 60% of the surfaces in your mouth!

Brave enough to give it a try?  Try swishing a teaspoon or two of coconut oil around your mouth for as long as you can (20 minutes is the goal, but it can seem like forever at first!) and then spit it out.  Do not swallow!  The oil will be filled with the toxins from your mouth.  And a bonus tip: spit it into the bin, not the drain, unless you have the plumber on speed-dial.

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