The obesity epidemic has resulted in a massive financial burden on the American healthcare system. Futhermore, while rates of obesity in adult men have stagnated over the past 10 years, the obesity rate in women has continued to climb during the same time period and now stands at 40.1% of the adult female population. In addition to putting the patient at risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, obesity impacts reproductive function and fertility. Additionally, although weight loss programs in theory combat obesity, recent evidence suggests that only 26% of programs are effective at maintaining weight loss longer than 12 months. Furthermore, whether dietary management to improve glucose tolerance and lipid profiles without weight loss is beneficial to overall health is also largely unknown. Despite being unique among plant-derived fat sources due to the high percent of medium chain fatty acids it contains, coconut oil has only recently been examined for its clinical effects on microbial infection and systemic metabolic regulation. Furthermore, the vast majority of data on the utility of coconut oil to modulate metabolism and glucose homeostasis has been conducted in lean rodent models. It is currently unknown whether coconut oil can modulate metabolism to improve glucose homeostasis in obese individuals and subsequently improve reproductive function and fertility.
Preliminary data in our animal model, the obese Ossabaw mini-pig, indicates that virgin coconut oil as a part of a high fat, excess calorie diet maintains normal glycemia, decreases the deposition of visceral and subcutaneous adipose tissue, shifts the distribution of fatty acids towards medium chain fatty acids in circulation and adipose tissue, and aids in the maintenance of normal estrous cycles, steroidogenesis, and ovarian function. Additionally, in collaboration with Dr. Andrea Braundmeier-Fleming of Southern Illinois University School of Medicine, we have evidence that virgin coconut oil can modulate immune function to favor immune homeostasis in obese females. Such a finding is quite surprising given that obesity is known to be a pro-inflamatory condition. We hope that our research will determine whether coconut oil as a part of a high fat diet can select for a “healthy obese” phenotype. Ultimately, the results of this research will provide a rationale for the use of coconut oil as a dietary supplement to enhance immune function, metabolic regulation, and, subsequently, fertility in obese individuals.
In a related project, we are funded by USDA NIFA to examine the effects of coconut oil on immune and metabolic function in young, growing domestic swine. We hope that coconut oil can serve as a potential replacement for feed antibiotics in nursery and grower pigs.