You’re never too old to learn something new. Although I have been trained, and you have likely been taught, to avoid saturated fats as much as possible, I believe we’ve all been a little misled. During the last 15 months, I stripped my education down to the bare bones to study metabolism, fat loss, and sports nutrition with a clean slate and new, open-minded perspective. Along the way, I found one saturated fat that should be incorporated into most every athlete’s diet…
This week, I’m extremely excited to highlight Extra Virgin Coconut Oil as your Monday Energy Food. It’s become one of my favorite ingredients in both Daily and Training Nutrition. And, it’s gaining steam in Western countries as a metabolism-boosting, bacteria-fighting, health-promoting fat. Eastern countries have traditionally considered it a healthy food. And, yet, it’s a saturated fat (gasp)!
If you’ve followed the Food Guide Pyramid and most of the nutrition recommendations in America over the past 50 years, you KNOW you should avoid saturated fats, right? You bet your cycling spandex. After all, they increase bad cholesterol, clog your arteries and generally promote disease. Well, after a long time coming in my own career, and somewhat of a mid-career crisis, I now know this to be wrong. “Saturated fats are villains” has been drilled into me as a student and as a professional. But, it simply hasn’t been based on science. In fact, a major review this year of most all significant saturated fat research has shown little correlation with them, cholesterol, and/or and disease. And, when it comes to the specific fats in natural coconut oil, it couldn’t be further from the truth.
You see, just like some unsaturated fats are better for you than others (fish oil vs. corn oil for example), some saturated fats are better for you than others. Organic, extra virgin coconut oil contains a very high percentage of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs). In chemistry terms, this means that the carbon chain has a medium length. The length of carbons chains, where any double-bonds are located, and the amount of hydrogens attached to the carbons drives how nutrients are used in our bodies. MCTs have the advantage of begin very easily digested, without need of extra lipid enzymes and bile salts. They are used directly by the mitochondria (energy producers) of the cells, and seldom stored as fat.
Lauric acid, the main acid that makes up coconut oil, has anti-microbial properties. It also increases insulin sensitivity in cells (which promotes health and discourages fat storage), increase fat burn, and improve cardiovascular markers by increases “good” cholesterol.
What does all of this mean to the endurance athlete?
First, you can incorporate organic extra-virgin coconut oil into your Daily Nutrition diet for health and wellness. It’s easy to use as it has a very high smoke point and is perfect for hot stir-fries. You can also use it in baked goods or as a replacement for butter.
Second, use it for Training Nutrition. It definitely has great potential for use before and during training as a quick energy source; however, it’s done poorly in research because the amounts used have caused some stomach distress in participants. Until recommendations for amounts are ironed out, a safer use is in recovery. After a hard training, it will simply help you store glycogen better (insulin sensitivity) and serve as an energy source to discourage muscle wasting and fatigue. An easy way to use it is to add it to a smoothie or melt it slightly and spread into a peanut butter and honey sandwich.
When buying it, go for organic, extra-virgin coconut oil and beware that stores still sell hydrogenated (loaded with trans-fat) coconut oil – stay far away from this kind! The organic kind can usually be found in the “healthy food” section of most grocery stores or in health food stores.
Don’t fear the saturated fats in organic extra-virgin coconut oil. Add it to your skillet, wok, smoothies, and spreads. Let it promote health while it helps you recover. It’s a healthy, awesome energy food!
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