Coconut Oil: A Different Kind of Saturated Fat

David Mendosa Health Guide March 08, 2012
  • Coconut oil is a special kind of saturated fat. The trouble with saturated fat in general, as I wrote here last week, is that our bodies find them harder to burn than other kinds of fat, like the monounsaturated fat in food like avocados, olive oil, and macadamia nuts.

    We manage our diabetes by controlling the spikes in our blood glucose levels. And nothing has a more dramatic affect on our levels than the starches and the sugars of high carbohydrate food. Therefore, many of us now follow a very low-carb diet.

    But when we start getting most of our energy from fat rather than from carbohydrates, our bodies are just beginning to learn how to convert fat to the energy we need. So we have to make it easier for ourselves, Ron Rosedale, M.D., told me. Dr. Rosedale is a physician and scientist who wrote The Rosedale Diet.


    Dr. Rosedale says to limit the amount of saturated fat during our first few weeks on a very low-carb diet. Otherwise, we will feel our lack of energy and tire easily.

    But this isn’t true of coconut oil, he says. “Coconut oil is a saturated fat so it has the benefit of being less likely to turn rancid than other fats.”

    Coconuts Drying

    It may be true that “a rose is a rose is a rose,” as Gertrude Stein wrote in one of her poems. But as our nutrition knowledge expands, we now know that we can’t equate different kinds of fats. Even those that we tend to lump as saturated fats have different properties that affect our health differently.

    Coconut oil is mostly a shorter chain saturated fat, which our bodies burn more easily than most saturated fat. Fats in general have from chains of 4 to 28 carbon atoms. About two-thirds of coconut oil fat has chains of 12 carbons or less.

    “By being a shorter chain saturated fat, coconut oil doesn’t have to be cut down to 12 carbons or less,” Dr. Rosedale says. “Many of the fatty acids in coconut oil are already in the short chain length and can therefore go right into the mitochondria to get burned. So it is the exception to the rule that saturated fat is more difficult to burn.”

    But I wondered how coconut oil compares in its burning ability with unsaturated fats. “Easier to burn,” Dr. Rosedale replied. “Unsaturated fats still have to be cut down. Mitochondria can’t burn anything that’s more than 12 carbons long. The cells can burn it, but they have to be processed first.”

    He told me that most of the fatty acids that are in a typical human diet are longer than 12 carbons, so they have to first be cut down and processed, and it takes time and energy to do that. And once they are chopped into pieces so they can be transported into the mitochondria, then they can be burned in the mitochondria as an energy source.

    Coconut oil is 86.5 percent saturated fat, according to the USDA’s National Nutrient Database. But 68 percent of its saturated fat are medium-chain fatty acids of 6 to 12 carbons.

    Only one other oil has more medium-chain fatty acids. Next week I will compare coconut oil with that fat and the other fats that our bodies burn best.