The products of the coconut, especially coconut oil, are often greatly enjoyed by Paleo diet folks and often end up being the main source of calories for many people starting on a paleo diet. After all, most will find it easier to simply buy a big jar of coconut oil than source grass-fed tallow that they then have to render themselves. Some will also shy away from butter fat because of the negative association with dairy. Then again, lard and poultry fat is known to often be a little high in omega-6 fats, even when the animal was well-treated.
What’s left then to keep as a staple for a macronutrient that often provides between 50 and 80% of our caloric intake? A lot will choose coconut oil. It’s reasonably priced, even the high quality stuff, it’s highly saturated and stable and has a very pleasant taste and aroma to most people.
Then comes the whole variety of coconut products: coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut water, coconut flour, coconut flakes and coconut butter. The coconut cult begins. I even use it to brush my teeth and under my armpits instead of commercial deodorant with great success.
As much as coconut is often treated as a perfect and clean source of fat calories, there are some important nuances we should take in consideration before choosing coconut as our main source of calories.
This article is not written to discourage people from eating coconut products if they do well on them, but to help those who might not feel well on a paleo diet and who would possibly benefit from slacking on the coconut. For those that, like me, don’t tolerate coconut products very well and learned it with self experimentation, it’s nice to have some kind of explanation as to why a “perfect food” would do us harm.
Before digging deeper in some reasons why coconut products might not be ideal for some, lets point out some positive things about that source of food:
- Coconut oil is highly saturated and stays stable under high heat;
- Coconut oil is very low in polyunsaturated fat;
- The medium-chain fatty acids in coconut oil have antibacterial and antifungal properties that can help those dealing with gut flora imbalances. You’ll see later that this can also be negative when the problem comes from the fact that not enough good bacteria is present;
- Coconut oil doesn’t need bile to be assimilated and is therefore easier to digest, especially for those with digestive or gallbladder issues;
- Coconut products offer antioxidant properties;
- The medium-chain fatty acids in coconut can offer metabolic advantages, as discussed in the following section.
Medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs)
What’s of interest to us is not necessarily specific foods and their availability during the paleolithic era since the diet would have been so varied depending on the climate, geography and season. The metabolic effect and macronutrient ratio of our food is much more important to try to reproduce our ancestor’s health through today’s choices. After all, the ruminants and birds available in the paleolithic were much different, but it doesn’t make beef or chicken poorer choices by default.
In the same way, coconut oil is a fat that’s mostly saturated and that is very low in polyunsaturated fat, which is something desirable because of the stability and functions of saturated fat in the body.
Most of the fat in coconut oil is from the medium-chain lauric acid while most other sources of saturated fats are composed mainly of long-chain fatty acids. This is the main difference between coconut oil and other saturated fats. Dairy fat also contains some levels of lauric acid, but in much lower amounts. Perhaps in levels that are ideal for the health of newborns.
Lauric acid and other medium-chain fatty acids have antibacterial, antifungal and antioxidant properties.
Medium-chain fatty acids are assimilated from the small intestine directly to the liver instead of having to go through the lymphatic system. This is beneficial for those who have fat malabsorption problems. The liver then produces ketone bodies out of those medium-chain fats. This can be beneficial for all the therapeutic effects of ketosis: autophagy stimulation (recycling of junk proteins and stimulation of the immune system), weight loss, bacteria starvation, cancer starvation, control of migraines, …
This can also be beneficial for those who have to be on ketogenic diet because of conditions like seizures as in epilepsy. Those people could potentially consume a more palatable diet with more vegetables and carbohydrates when consuming ketone producing coconut oil.
A caution against extra ketone production in long term ketogenic diets
I can’t really recommend having coconut oil as your main source of calories when already on a low carb ketogenic diet for a long period of time. When on such a low carbohydrate diet, the liver already produces ketone bodies in the amount needed for the cells to produce energy. When consuming coconut oil on top of that, the liver will produce extra ketone bodies, and we have no evidence that this is desirable in any way, especially in the long term. This can potentially be detrimental to the kidneys.
The Kitavans are native people from the Pacific Islands that are well known for their heavy use of coconut products. They’re also really healthy. They get a high proportion of their diet from starchy carbohydrates like yams and therefore are far from being on a ketogenic diet. We don’t have examples of traditional cultures who ate very low carbohydrate diets high in ketone producing medium-chain saturated fats like coconut oil.
Some problems associated with coconut products
For those not in the know, coconut products and coconut oil can cause problems for some people. Some report having nausea, gastritis, GERD, upset stomach, diarrhea or other negative outcomes from coconut. For some, it’s only temporary and, after their gut is repaired from the damages of fructose, grains and omega-3/omega-6 imbalances, can tolerate coconut products provided they introduce them slowly.
Here are some ideas of reasons why things might go wrong when consuming coconut products:
- Some people are allergic to coconuts like they can be for other tree nuts;
- Coconut meat contains levels of lectins, which can potentially irritate the gut lining;
- Most coconut milk preparations contain guar gum as a thickening and homogenizing agent, but some people seem sensitive to it;
- Some people are intolerant to the high levels of salicylates in coconut products;
- The potent antibacterial and antifungal properties of coconut oil might not always be beneficial, especially when commensal (beneficial) bacteria is also being killed. People with gut flora imbalances might want to try limiting their coconut oil consumption if it makes them feel worse;
Coconut, really a part of our ancestor’s diet?
In raising some points against coconut products and in favor of butter for some specific cases, I feel some will jump to conclusions and argue that there is no way that we’ve been eating dairy products before coconut products since coconut palms have been around for way longer than cattle, goat or sheep domestication.
While it’s true that coconut palm trees have been around for a very long time, they are available only in a few places of the world. If you can go up your ancestry line, chances are that none of your ancestors were in contact with coconuts. After all, most of us originate from central Africa or Northern Europe and coconuts are pretty much absent there. The amount of calories from coconuts would also often be limited as coconut oil extraction is a new thing.
In this sense, dairy fat as been around for way longer in most people’s ancestry line and is much more similar to the composition of the fat from ruminants for which we have evolved consuming in large quantity. The Kitavans are an exception discussed earlier in the article.
It’s also good to note that, unlike other sources of animal fat or dairy fat, coconut oil doesn’t contain any useful micronutrients like vitamin B12, vitamin K2, cholesterol, CLA and omega-3 fat.
Like many food choices, coconut oil and other coconut products can be a mixed bag. Of course, in most cases, coconut products are very healthy, tasty and beneficial. It can however be something to try to eliminate for a period of time when experiencing odd problems on a Paleo diet.
Knowing the effect of food on our biochemistry becomes really useful to troubleshoot problems.
In many cases however, your body will tell you better than any website if some foods are a source of problems. All you need to do when trouble shooting problems is to listen to your body and consistently experience with new food combinations, while staying within the boundaries of a healthy grain-free, sugar-free and low omega-6 paleo diet.
I think that when it comes to fat choices, a variety is always best not only for health reasons, but also to enjoy the whole variety of tastes available.