Coconut Oil and Diabetes | Effect on Blood and Glucose
Coconut oil is a flavorful fat that is often used as an alternative to butter and various oils. Many people looking to live a healthier lifestyle turn to coconut oil for cooking, but is it really all that good for you? And does it have any added benefits (or downsides) for people with diabetes?
This article will outline many of the studies that may support coconut oil, and also explain why coconut oil should be consumed in moderation. Keep reading for additional tips on how to manage your diabetes and create the healthiest lifestyle for you!
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a disease that affects millions of Americans. People with diabetes have blood sugar/blood glucose levels that are too high or too low. However, this problem stems from their body’s ability to produce and/or use the hormone insulin.
Glucose is absolutely crucial to the body. It is the brain’s main source of energy, and it powers all of our millions of muscle and tissue cells. Our body converts the food we eat into glucose to use as fuel, and then insulin helps transmit this glucose from the blood into the cells, where it can be used. Without glucose, cells would not have the energy they need to perform vital tasks. Additionally, too much glucose in the blood over a long period of time can lead to serious damage to the cardiovascular and nervous systems, kidneys, and eyes.
We need the hormone insulin to regulate the amount of glucose in the blood. Normally, insulin is produced in and secreted from the pancreas, where it then moves around the blood, allowing glucose to enter the cells. When blood glucose levels rise or decline, insulin acts accordingly to maintain a healthy blood glucose level. When the body does not make insulin or cannot use it properly though, glucose is unable to enter cells for fuel or storage, and blood sugar levels remain dangerously high.
There are two types of diabetes. Type 1 diabetes, also known as juvenile diabetes, is a condition where the body cannot produce insulin. Type 2 diabetes, the more commonly recognizable one, is a condition where the body either cannot produce insulin or does not use insulin effectively. You can also have prediabetes, where you are at a higher risk for developing diabetes, as well as gestational diabetes, which is diabetes that occurs during pregnancy.
A diabetes diagnosis can be scary, but there are plenty of actions you can take to regulate your blood sugar levels and live a healthy life.
How Does Diabetes Affect Your Diet?
Your diet likely has to undergo the biggest changes once you discover you have diabetes. Because people with diabetes already have high blood glucose levels, the goal is to avoid eating foods that will lead to a blood sugar spike and send blood glucose levels even higher. As such, foods high in sugars and/or carbohydrates need to be limited.
The body converts food into glucose, which is its main source of energy. This means that carbohydrates, proteins, and fats all contribute in some way to the body’s blood glucose content. The way the body digests each of these dietary components controls how they may affect your blood sugar. Let’s look a little closer:
- Carbohydrates include foods like pasta, rice, bread, sugar, yogurt, starchy vegetables, milk and fruits. This is the most important contributor to glucose, as 100% of the carbohydrates we eat are turned into glucose. Carbohydrates also affect blood sugar levels about 1-2 hours after being eaten, since the body is able to digest them quickly. This is why many carbohydrates have a high glycemic index and are therefore likely to cause a blood sugar spike. When eating carbohydrates, look for those rich in fiber and other nutrients, rather than starchy and sugary carbs.
- Protein like meat, fish, cheese, and nuts also contribute to your body’s glucose content, but at a much lower rate than carbohydrates. In fact, a lot of the glucose that comes from protein is stored in the liver and is never actually released into the bloodstream, so it cannot significantly affect your blood glucose levels.
- Fat has been given a bad name, but we need healthy fats to survive. Oils, salad dressing, avocados, and nuts/seeds all contain fat. Only approximately 10% of the fat we eat is turned into glucose, and because the body absorbs glucose from fat much more slowly, fats are unlikely to cause a blood sugar spike. Coconut oil falls under this category.
There is no set “diabetes diet” — it is more about making choices that best suit your life and your needs. In general, a diabetic person should cut out high-glycemic foods, refined grains, and other processed foods. Adding more whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, and lean sources of protein to your diet can make a world of difference.
The best way to transition from one “diet” to another is by substituting certain unhealthy foods for healthier options. For example, foods that are high in saturated fat, such as red meat and butter, increase the risk for cardiovascular disease, which diabetics are already at a higher risk for. Instead, try foods high in unsaturated fat, such as fatty fish (e.g. salmon) and virgin olive oil.
Why Coconut Oil?
As stated above, coconut oil is a type of fat that is often used as a substitute for butter. As a fat, it is absorbed more slowly in glucose form and also contributes to a very small portion of the body’s glucose content, so it is unlikely to significantly increase your blood sugar. This means that coconut oil is generally acceptable for people with diabetes.
Coconut oil is high in many nutrients, antioxidants, and healthy triglycerides. It is also low in cholesterol. You should look for “virgin” coconut oil, which means the oil was pressed without the use of chemicals and is unrefined.
Coconut oil may be able to support weight loss, lower blood glucose levels, and combat insulin resistance.
One study that tested the use of coconut oil or olive oil as a weight loss aid found that coconut oil was more effective than olive oil in reducing overall weight and fat mass. An additional study showed that coconut oil may allow for reduced waist circumference.
A study on mice looked to demonstrate that coconut oil and other medium-chain fatty acids can increase insulin sensitivity and reduce the presence of excess fatty tissue. Other animal studies show that coconut oil may lower blood glucose and cholesterol levels.
Each of these studies looked specifically at the relationship between type 2 diabetes and coconut oil, so these results do not necessarily transfer over to those with type 1 diabetes.
Firstly, most of the studies described above involved animals rather than humans. This means that the results are not necessarily conclusive, and could turn out to be entirely different when relating to humans. Even the studies done on humans are far too few and need more backing.
Secondly, coconut oil contains about 92% saturated fatty acids, which are considered to be generally unhealthy. Saturated fat increases total LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, and may increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. Olive oil is much higher in healthy, unsaturated fat, and therefore works as a more attractive fat option than coconut oil.
The majority of the saturated fatty acids in coconut oil are “medium-chain” fatty acids (as opposed to long-chain fatty acids), which may be less harmful. However, the added benefit of increased HDL (“good”) cholesterol is cancelled out by the similar increase in LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Other potential benefits of medium-chain fatty acids, such as supporting the immune system, have yet to be proven.
In the end, the best way to consume coconut oil is in moderation. Whenever possible, look for a fat that is high in unsaturated fatty acids. Fish, nuts, and seeds are also high in unsaturated fats.
Managing Your Diabetes
Adjusting your diet is one vital step to managing your diabetes, but there are other lifestyle changes you may want to make in order to stay at your healthiest and keep the risk of blood sugar spikes and other adverse reactions low:
- Take Your Medication: Most people with diabetes are prescribed some form of supplemental insulin in order to regulate their blood glucose levels.
- Exercise Often: Did you know that regular exercise can actually build your insulin sensitivity? It is also great for your heart and practically every other part of your body. Find the type of physical activity that will keep you motivated and excited to exercise regularly, and note that inactivity can actually increase your blood sugar levels.
- Weight Control: Through a healthy diet and exercise, you may be able to lose a modest amount of weight. Since higher amounts of fatty tissue may increase insulin resistance, weight loss can be beneficial to some. Be sure to consult with your doctor to ensure that you are losing weight in a healthy manner.
- Check Your Blood Glucose Levels Often: Keeping a close eye on your blood glucose levels helps you catch a potential spike (or drop) early and act accordingly. Getting your A1C test regularly can also show you how your blood sugar is fluctuating over time.
Your body converts the food you eat into glucose, and so diet is very crucial when trying to maintain healthy blood sugar levels.
Coconut oil offers both benefits, such as better insulin sensitivity, and drawbacks, such as a high concentration of saturated fat, to people with diabetes. As such, coconut oil should be consumed in moderation, or substituted with unsaturated fats.
To further manage your diabetes, make sure to exercise regularly, take any medication your doctor may have prescribed (including insulin), and keep a close watch on your blood glucose levels.