Top Yoga Food: Coconuts

Coconuts are mentioned in the Gheranda Samhita as a terrific food for practicing yogis. While these days there’s some debate about whether or not they’re healthy (given their high content of saturated fat), I vote for their role in a healthy diet.

Why?

Because even though coconuts have a large amount of saturated fat, not all saturated fats are alike. The saturated fat in coconuts is primarily medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA). MCFAs are different from the long-chain fatty acids found in animal protein like bacon.

How are they different?

  • Their smaller size means that the body absorbs them differently. MCFA go directly from the gut to the liver through the portal vein where they are rapidly metabolized for fuel. In contrast, long-chain fatty acids found predominately in animal protein must be absorbed into the lymphatic circulation first. They drain from there into the venous system where they can circulate throughout the body before they make it to the liver. That means they may “stop off” at fat cells and go inside for a rest first making fat cells fatter.
  • Because MCFAs don’t have a chance to go directly to the fat cells through the systemic circulation, they’re less likely to cause weight gain than the long-chain fatty acid saturated fat found in animal protein. Several studies in animals and humans, but not all, support the idea that saturated fat like that found in coconuts is less likely to actually make you fat and clog your arteries.
  • Because the MCFAs go directly to the liver for a more rapid metabolism, they are able to send signals to brain earlier that you’ve had enough for now. Essentially, MCFAs make you feel full faster than long-chain fatty acids – so we eat less.

But what about cholesterol?

We’re told to avoid saturated fat because it can increase our blood cholesterol levels, particularly the “bad” LDL cholesterol. A high blood cholesterol level, especially LDL, is a risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. When the levels are too high, the body can’t handle things properly and small LDL particles get stuck under the blood vessel lining, building up into plaques that eventually rupture. Ruptured cholesterol plaques then block blood flow through the arteries in the heart. Heart cells don’t get enough blood and oxygen, and they die. That’s a heart attack. (Its a simplified version of a complicated story.)

Scientists have been trying to tease out whether or not MCFAs, like those in coconuts, adversely affect cholesterol levels. A study or two says they dont. In 2008, a group at Columbia University in New York reported in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition that the type of saturated fat found in coconuts can be incorporated into a weight loss program without any fear of increasing cholesterol. Another article published in 2009 shows that coconut oil can lower total and LDL cholesterol levels while increasing the “good” cholesterol, HDL.

What else?

Eating half of the “meat’ from one medium-sized coconut provides 100% of the daily recommended allowance of total fat for an average person. More than enough manganese is found to satisfy the recommendations, and there’s enough copper to satisfy half of its requirement. The “meat” from half a coconut provides one-quarter of the daily recommended amounts of iron and selenium, the latter of which is important in a good detox program to aid in decreasing free radicals. Coconuts are also high in zinc and vitamin C.

Conclusion:

On the Indian subcontinent, some call the coconut tree the “Tree of Life.” Fresh coconuts are packed with wholesome nutrition, and they’ve supported the growth of families for generations. They may be packed with saturated fat, but maybe not such a bad kind of saturated fat. Beyond the modern science studies, life shows us that high cholesterol levels and heart attacks aren’t common in populations who consume tons of coconuts. The Gheranda Samhita recommends them as a good food source of Yoga food for good reason.

References:

Assunção et al. Effects of Dietary Coconut Oil on the Biochemical and Anthropometric Profiles of Women Presenting Abdominal Obesity. Lipids Volume 44, Number 7, July 2009.

Lipoeto NI et al. Dietary intake and the risk of coronary heart disease among the coconut-consuming Minangkabau in West Sumatra, Indonesia. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2004;13(4):377-84.

St-Onge MP, Bosarge A, Goree LL, Darnell B. Medium chain triglyceride oil consumption as part of a weight loss diet does not lead to an adverse metabolic profile when compared to olive oil. J Amer Coll Nutr. 2008 Oct;27(5):547-52.

St-Onge MP and JonesPJH. Physiological Effects of Medium-Chain Triglycerides: Potential Agents in the Prevention of Obesity. J. Nutr. 132:329-332, 2002.

Tholstrup T et al. Effects of medium-chain fatty acids and oleic acid on blood lipids, lipoproteins, glucose, insulin, and lipid transfer protein activities. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 79, No. 4, 564-569, April 2004.

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