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Coconut Oil And Kidney Disease: A Healthy Choice?

The Benefits Of Fat

Before we dive into coconut oil and it’s potential benefits for chronic kidney disease, I think it’s first important to understand the benefits of healthy fats in our diet. The idea that fat can be healthy may still be difficult for some to accept. For many years we were conditioned to fear fat. That eating all types of fat just leads to weight gain and high cholesterol, so it’s better to avoid it. But, the truth is, we need fat in our diet. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Fat is a primary energy source
  • Supplies Essential Fatty Acids which support the basic functions of our body (we cannot make EFAs on our own)
  • Regulates hormones
  • Helps build cell membranes, support cell growth
  • Promotes proper nerve functioning
  • Helps our body absorb fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K)
  • Protects our vital organs
  • Nourishes our skin, hair, and nails

So, yes, fat is an important part of our diet! The key is choosing from healthier sources and not getting too much of it. If you are on dialysis or have chronic kidney disease (CKD) you are at a higher risk for developing heart disease. Eating too much of the wrong kinds of fat can increase your bad cholesterol, cause inflammation in the body and raise your risk for stroke, heart attack, and diabetes. So, it is important for you to know which types of fats are the most beneficial for good kidney health.

Coconut Oil: The Controversy

Picture of extra virgin coconut oil in a jar on the kitchen counter with a wok.

Most of you have heard about the harmful effects of trans fats and potentially saturated fats on heart health. But, you may not know what food sources you usually find these fats in. We mostly get trans fat from partially hydrogenated vegetable oils. These oils are manufactured to use in food products to provide a longer shelf life and enhance taste and texture. You will find hydrogenated oils used in a variety of food products such as:

  • Baked goods (cookies, cakes, biscuits, rolls, pie crusts)
  • Fried foods (doughnuts, fried chicken, french fries, fried noodles)
  • Non-dairy creamer (Coffee mate)
  • Microwave popcorn, crackers, chips
  • Frozen pizza
  • Shortening
  • Stick margarine

Saturated fat is mainly found in animal sources like butter, red meat, whole milk, whole milk dairy products, cheese, and lard. You can also find it in tropical oils like palm oil, palm kernel oil, commercially prepared baked goods that use these oils, and, yes,……coconut oil.

In fact, coconut oil is about 90% saturated fat which is higher than butter (~64% saturated fat). For that reason, coconut oil is often considered an unhealthy oil by many health professionals and we are usually told to limit or avoid it. I know I personally had an issue using it for the longest time until a few years ago. It appears though that not all saturated fat is created equal. As more and better quality studies come out we are starting to find that the different fatty acid profiles of coconut oil (virgin unrefined) may prove to be beneficial.

What Is Different About Coconut Oil?

For starters – and this is just me thinking out loud – coconut oil is from a plant source. I find it easier to understand that the saturated fat from a plant could potentially offer different qualities than the saturated fat coming from an animal source. Speaking of qualities, lets take a look at the chemical make-up of coconut oil and some possible benefits.

Lauric Acid and MCTs

Coconut oil consists of a variety of different fatty acids. About 50% of the fatty acid profile of coconut oil consists of lauric acid making it unique in comparison to other oils. Lauric acid acts more like a medium chain saturated fatty acid which makes up what we call medium chain triglycerides or MCTs. The length of fatty acid chain refers to how many carbon atoms are attached.

picture of the fatty acid chemical structure of coconut oil.

Most of the fat that you consume in your diet comes from long chain fatty acids. Your body metabolizes long chain and medium chain fatty acids differently. Unlike long chain fatty acids, your body rapidly metabolizes MCTs, sending them straight to the liver to be used as an instant energy source. This means they are less likely to be stored in your fat (adipose) tissue (1).

Coconut Oil And Cholesterol

While lauric acid has been shown to raise blood cholesterol, it mostly raises the “good” HDL cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein). HDLs carry cholesterol back to the liver where it is flushed from the body. High levels of HDLs and a decrease in total cholesterol to HDL ratio are associated with lower risk of coronary heart disease (2).

One randomized clinical trial looked at 91 men and women over a period of 4 weeks. They were randomized into groups consuming 50g daily of either extra virgin coconut oil, unsalted butter, or extra virgin olive oil. They then measured changes in their blood lipid profile. The two main sources of saturated fat, butter and coconut oil, had different effects on blood cholesterol levels. Coconut oil had a more similar affect to olive oil (a monounsaturated fat), showing no increase in LDL “bad” cholesterol but had a significant increase in HDLs. LDLs were significantly increased in the butter group along with an increase in total cholesterol to HDL ratio (3).

Coconut Oil And The Brain?

Picture of a paper head laying flat on a table with a missing puzzle piece. Coconut oil and the brain?

Alzheimer’s disease (AD) is a progressive brain disease and the most common form of dementia. The brain’s ability to use glucose for energy is altered in people with AD. Coconut oil’s unique fatty acid profile is a good source of medium chain fatty acids or MCTs. During the metabolism of MCTs, ketones are produced (alternate fuel made in the liver). It is thought that this alternative fuel source could be beneficial for someone with AD who’s brain is lacking glucose, helping to alleviate symptoms (4).

We are also finding that diet and lifestyle choices may play an important role in preventing and treating AD (5, 6). This is promising as there is currently no effective treatment for AD. I’m looking forward to seeing further studies on this!

Anti-Microbial Benefits Of Coconut Oil

As mentioned previously, a large percentage of coconut oil is made up of lauric acid which forms a chemical called monolaurin. Lauric acid and especially monolaurin are known to have anti-viral, anti-fungal, and anti-bacterial properties. This could prove to be immune boosting (7, 8).

Ketones and Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD)

Polycystic kidney disease (PKD) is a genetic disease causing growth of fluid filled cysts inside your kidneys. These cysts can grow very large causing high blood pressure and kidney failure over time. These cysts can also be painful, often causing side or back pain. Animal studies have shown that producing a state of ketosis can help inhibit the growth of these cysts, delaying disease progression (9).

Ketosis is a metabolic state that happens when your body doesn’t have enough carbohydrates to burn for energy. Your body then turns to fat instead of glucose for fuel and produces ketones (made by your liver).

Since coconut oil is a good source of MCTs, this can potentially provide a more quick source of fuel. If you have PKD, adding coconut oil to your diet along with a low carbohydrate intake can help you achieve ketosis, potentially inhibiting the growth of your cysts. It will be interesting to see more human studies backing up this dietary approach to treatment of PKD (10).

Picture of coconut oil and coconuts. Coconut Oil And Kidney Disease: A Healthy Choice?

Coconut Oil And Kidney Disease: A Healthy Choice?

So, is coconut oil a healthy choice for dialysis patients and people with chronic kidney disease? I say it absolutely can be when used in moderation in conjunction with other healthy fats in your diet. How can you add coconut oil to your diet?

What To Look For

Look for virgin unrefined cold pressed coconut oil which does not involve high temperatures or added chemicals. Avoid refined, processed forms of coconut oil as I believe the impact on health may not be the same.

Storage And Cooking

Ideally, it is best to store coconut oil in a dark, cool place and somewhere where the temperature doesn’t often change (like above the stove). Make sure the lid is on tightly to avoid oxygen exposure. It is normal for the consistency to go from a white solid to a clear liquid depending on the temperature of the room.

Despite Coconut oil’s lower smoke point (350 °F), it has been found to be able to withstand high temperatures without breaking down, making it a stable oil to use in all different types of cooking (11). Common uses are sautéing, stir-frying, baking, and added to smoothies. You can also substitute coconut oil for butter in recipes.

How Much Coconut Oil A Day?

It is generally thought that 1-2 Tablespoons (15-30 ml) a day is enough to bring you benefit without overdoing it. This gives you room to incorporate other healthy oils into your diet such as extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil.

Best Oils Guide

For more information on healthy oil options check out my Best Oils Guide located under the Resources and Helpful Lists tab. Here’s to adding better healthy fat options to your diet!

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