The Healing Power of Healthy Fats
Have you heard the good news!? Dietary fat is not only tasty and satiating, but also plays a profound role in the structure and function of the human body and many consider it to be the most important macronutrient found in food! The oft-vilified saturated fats that we love to hate may actually provide more benefit than we have been led to believe when incorporated into a healing dietary regimen.
Well, let me assure you that you read that previous statement right, and that I am NOT on any crazy psychotropics. Much research has proven that some varieties of dietary fat can actually be healthy and therapeutic when incorporated mindfully into a healthful diet.
Before we get into the details of why these fats are so good for our bodies, lets quickly revisit how the different varieties of fat are classified. Fat is often categorized in one of two ways: by their degree of saturation or the length of their carbon chain. The first and more widely used degree of saturation classification compartmentalize fats according to the number of double bonds located between carbon atoms that form the backbone of each fatty acid. The presence or absence of double carbon bonds impacts how a specific fat interacts with the body and determines its chemical stability. Fats that are completely absent double bonds are considered fully saturated with hydrogen atoms are solid at room temperature, less reactive and more shelf stable. Conversely, fats that contain two or more double carbon bonds are classified as polyunsaturated; these fats are liquid at room temperature and are increasingly subject to oxidative damage and rancidity during cooking and storage. The second, less common method of dietary fat classification is by their length, the number of atoms present along their carbon backbone. Short-chain fatty acids contain four or six carbon atoms, medium-chain fatty acids contain eight to twelve, and long-chain fatty acids contain fourteen to twenty four. This second method of classification is the one we will pay particular attention to in this post, because those fatty acids that are of a certain length that have been found to improve our health in numerous ways.
Medium-Chain Fatty Acids (MCFAs)
Medium-chain fatty acids, also known as medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs, are of particular dietary importance because of their ability to pass through the lining of the small intestines into the blood without the need to be broken down through digestion or elongated by the liver. Not only does this save a tremendous amount of energy, it has been found that this efficiency in absorption and utilization allows MCTs to be quickly applied to energy production, bypass storage in fat deposits and improve thermogenesis, the burning of energy stored in adipose (fat) tissue. And, according to Sally Fallon, author of Nourishing Traditions, MCTs are some of the most valuable dietary fatty acids because they contain many antimicrobial properties that promote healthy gut bacteria while contributing to immune function and health.
Further, MCTs can be applied therapeutically in the treatment of neurodegenerative disease. MCTs increase the body’s production of ketones, a byproduct created when fat is burned for energy, which can help reestablish and maintain normal brain function and stimulate healing in those affected by conditions like autism and epilepsy. Ketones are uniquely able to feed the brain in individuals with neurodegenerative diseases where there is a high degree of oxidative stress that interferes with glucose metabolism. Ketones also have the ability to trigger the activation of special proteins located in the brain that function in cell maintenance, repair and protection against further oxidative stress and inflammation, while promoting the growth of new brain cells crucial to the healing and repair process.
So, where can these energy producing, fat burning, brain healing miracle fats be found?
Coconut Oil and MCT heaven
Coconut oil, extracted from the fruit, or copra, of coconuts, is one of the best food sources of MCTs available. It is approximately 92% saturated fat with over two-thirds of those fats classified as medium-chain fatty acids. Coconut oil is a major source of the antimicrobial fatty acids lauric and capric acid, which the body may use to kill or disable pathogenic viruses, bacteria and protozoa (fun fact: the only other concentrated source of lauric acid is found in breast milk). Don’t let the presence of saturated fat discourage you from experimenting with coconut oil as current research is beginning to reveal that these fats have been misunderstood or misrepresented for far too long. Even Dr. Oz and the New York Times extol the value of coconut oil and encourage us to dispel the ‘conventional thought’ that saturated MCTs are unhealthy and contribute to heart disease. Many studies have found coconut oil actually assists with lowering cholesterol because fatty acids in the coconut oil prevent the oxidation of cholesterol that begins atherosclerosis (clogging of arteries); coconut oil is also purported to reduce the risk of heart disease. Some studies even suggest taking coconut oil as a supplement can help with candidia and other conditions. For more information about the traditional uses and other health benefits of coconut oil, check out this post from our editor, Andrea.
Building a Ketogenic Diet
The therapeutic application of a healing ketogenic diet is traditionally very low-carb and high-fat, which may not be viable for some individuals. However, the application of MCFAs like coconut oil, even in the presence of a moderate amount of carbohydrates, can stimulate the production of ketones to therapeutic levels. However, it must be noted that the lower the amount of carbohydrates consumed, the greater the beneficial effect of a ketogenic diet.
Everyday Coconut Oil
Not only is coconut oil extremely healthful, it is easy to incorporate to any healthy eating regimen. The chemical structure of coconut oil structure impart an unusually high melting point that make it ideal for cooking at medium temperatures and it is the only oil I use when sautéing or roasting vegetables. Coconut oil also has a mild taste which makes it well suited for baking or even eaten ‘raw’ tossed with a salad or steamed veggies. If I am in a rush, I have even been known to toss a tablespoon or two in my green smoothies for that extra burst of MCT energy-producing goodness. The possibilities are endlessly tasty with coconut oil and there are many resources available that can help you identify how to best integrate this miracle oil into your everyday routine.
There are many brands of great coconut oil on the market: Nutiva, Dr. Bronners, Artisana, Bright Earth, Spectrum, and Tropical Traditions. For the best tasting, most nutritious oil, choose an organic, extra virgin oil; make sure that it has not been bleached, deodorized, or hydrogenated– these processes render the oil unhealthy and useless. Coconut oil will be white and solid when cool and will turn to liquid at about 75ºF. You can keep in the fridge and use as a butter replacement, or keep in the pantry and use for baking and salads.
We were told for decades that a low-fat diet (loaded with low-fat dairy and refined carbohydrates) was the key to health, and though this has been discredited, the idea that fats are unhealthy still holds sway in public opinion. However, I think its safe to say that we all must give healthy fats a place in our diet, both for flavor and the extraordinary health benefits healthy fats can offer.