Coconut Oil Can Help Prevent Malnutrition

By Dr. Bruce Fife

Coconut oil can be an excellent way to increase the nutritional content of foods and improve nutrient absorption. Coconut oil is different from other fats and oils because it is made primarily of a unique group of fats known as medium chain triglycerides (MCTs). Most all others fats in our diet are composed of long chain triglycerides (LCTs).

One of the advantages of MCTs over the more common LCTs is their speed and efficiency in digestion. MCTs digest very quickly, with minimal effort and stress placed on the body. LCTs require pancreatic digestive enzymes and bile in order to break down into individual fatty acids. MCTs, on the other hand, break down so quickly that they do not need pancreatic digestive enzymes or bile, thus reducing stress and conserving the body’s enzymes. The digestive systems of those people with malabsorption problems often have a difficult time digesting LCTs. Not so with MCTs. Consequently, MCTs provide a superior source of energy and nutrition than do LCTs.

The difference in the way MCTs are digested is of great interest in medicine because it provides a means by which a number of medical conditions can be successfully treated. Replacing a portion of the LCTs normally found in the diet with MCTs has allowed doctors to successfully treatment of a variety of malabsorption syndromes including defects in fat digestion and absorption, pancreatic insufficiency, liver and gallbladder disorders, defects in protein metabolism, cystic fibrosis, and celiac disease. MCTs can even, speed recovery after intestinal surgery.

Because of MCTs are digested more efficiently, they also improve the absorption of other nutrients. As far back as the 1930s researchers noticed that adding coconut oil to foods enhanced the food’s nutritional value. For example, researchers at Auburn University studied the effects of vitamin B-1 deficiency in animals given different types of fats. Vitamin B-1 deficiency leads to a fatal disease called beriberi. When rats were given a vitamin B deficient diet, coconut oil was effective in preventing the disease. Coconut oil doesn’t contain vitamin B-1. So how did coconut oil prevent a vitamin B-1 deficiency? Coconut oil made what little of the vitamin that was in the diet more biologically available, thus preventing the deficiency disease.

A number of studies have found similar effects. Coconut oil improves the absorption of not only the B vitamins but also vitamins A, D, E, K, beta-carotene, lycopene, CoQ10, and other fat soluble nutrients, minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and some amino acids—the building block for protein. Adding coconut oil to vegetables can increase the absorption of beta-carotene, lycopene, and other nutrients as much as 18 times!

What this means is that if you add coconut oil to a meal, you will get significantly more vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients out of the food than if you used soybean oil, canola oil, or another oil, or if you used no oil at all. Simply adding coconut oil to a meal greatly enhances the food’s nutritional value.

This fact has led researchers to investigate its use in the treatment of malnutrition. For example, coconut oil, mixed with a little corn oil, was compared with soybean oil for the treatment of malnourished preschool-aged children in the Philippines. The study involved 95 children aged 10-44 months who were 1st to 3rd degree malnourished. The children were from a slum area in Manila. The children were given one full midday meal and one afternoon snack daily except Sundays for 16 weeks. The food fed to the children was identical in every respect except for the oil. Approximately two-thirds of the oil in their diet came from either the coconut oil/corn oil mix or soybean oil. The children were allocated to one of the two diets at random: 47 children received the coconut oil diet and 48 children the soybean oil diet. The children were weighed every two weeks and examined by a pediatrician once a week. At the start of the study the ages, initial weight, and degree of malnutrition of the two groups as a whole were essentially identical.

After the 16 weeks, results showed that the coconut oil diet produced significantly faster weight gain and improvement in nutritional status compared to the soybean oil diet. A mean gain of 5.57 pounds after four months was recorded for the coconut oil group, almost twice as much as the weight gain of the soybean oil groups of 3.27 pounds.

Coconut oil or MCTs is included in all hospital infant formulas. Premature infants whose digestive systems are not fully matured have a difficult time digesting most fats. However, they can handle MCTs. When coconut oil is added to their formula they grow faster and have a higher survival rate. Adults also benefit with the addition of coconut oil. For this reason, coconut oil or MCTs are also included in the feeding formulas given to hospital patients of all ages. When MCTs are added to nutritional formulas, patients recovering from surgery or illness recover faster.