Empty Calories

How many times a day does a regular about the nutrition internets hear this term?  One, two ... a dozen?  In this community, it is often carbohydrates that are slapped with this tag.  I find it ridiculous to label a class of molecules as "empty" with no mention of the context in which they are found and consumed.  It is also rather warped that most of the residents of relatively wealthy countries view calories for the sake of the life sustaining energy -- so that the body doesn't have to cannibalize itself -- in a negative light.   Does anyone really think paleolithic humans thought about whether their food came with an appropriate density of vitamins and minerals?  Of course there would have been little opportunity for them to consume such foods ... those are processed/refined foods.  I also cannot envision our ancestors passing up starchy plants to consume non-digestible fibers, but that's a topic for another day.

No, today, I want to discuss coconut oil.  CO has been glorified and romanticized out of all proportion in the IHC.  Over half of the fats in CO are medium chain triglycerides, MCT, though less than 10% are the shortest chain MCTs that you can buy as MCT oil.   Coconut oil is the epitome of empty calories.    Amy of Super Healthy Kids blog put this graphic together some time back, and blogged on this issue in Why We Don’t Buy Coconut Oil.  As you can see, if you eat 100g of coconut, you still get the coconut fat (roughly 1/3rd as as much), but it comes with all of those other things that are zeroes down the CO column, or so negligible as to be essentially zero.  The tropical cultures for whom coconuts are/were a major dietary staple are eating the coconut and getting all of this stuff.  

Coconut oil is empty calories.

Coconut oil will also largely shut down the oxidation of body fat for fuel, as much or moreso than carbs.  Say what?  Yep.  The majority of the fats are not useful for anything other than fuel in the human body.  There are almost no essential fatty acids and we have no metabolic "machinery" for elongating medium to long chain fatty acids for building membranes and such.  All but the longest MCFA -- that might find itself "accidentally" incorporated into a chylomicron bound triglyceride -- are shunted directly to the liver to be metabolized upon arrival.  This is why they are ketogenic, as their rapid metabolism generates acetyl CoA faster than it can be used so it is converted to ketones and released into circulation for ... fuel.  But nutrition? Forgettahbout it.

Now, there's nothing wrong with this.  But why is eating a rapidly digested starch or sugar necessarily inferior? nThe answer is, they are not.  They are "calories".   I think this explains, however, the addiction many in the IHC seem to have for their version of quick energy.  MCT are like carbs for carbophobes ;-)  In all seriousness, there are few if any high carbers who recommend folks grab a spoon of sugar or choose a Coke for quick energy, but there are innumerable examples in the IHC of "swigging" or downing a tablespoon or so of CO and it is often times suggested for energy.  Yep... empty calories.

As to the other magical powers of coconut oil, such as antimicrobial or whatever properties, well (hat tip to @UrbanAntonio on Twitter): Pouring granulated sugar on wounds 'can heal them faster than antibiotics'   Cue the Def Leppard!

... removes tongue from cheek ...


Mario Iwakura said…
"In all seriousness, there are few if any high carbers who recommend folks grab a spoon of sugar or choose a Coke for quick energy"

Really? Forgot Ray Peat? :-)

Anyway, mix coconut meat, egg yolks, butter, and some empy calories from sugar and we have a desert to die for: brazilian quindim!

Does not Dr Oz attribute similar magical properties to palm oil? It also seems strange that the paleo/low carb community affords the most magical properties to coconut oil, a rare vegetable source of saturated fat given all those of animal origin available. Perhaps It stands out from the crowd, has charisma, magic?
Diana said…
Dr. Oz attributes magical properties to a lot of different foods. I guess it depends on who is paying him that day.
Unknown said…


It’s no longer accurate to describe The Dr. Oz show as a health program. This is infotainment, with segments that now look like parodies of sensible health information. How can anyone take the information he offers seriously? He has no hesitation endorsing the use of sugar pills for fever, anxiety, pain, cough, respiratory tract infections, sleep disorders, and musculoskeletal injuries. By discarding the facts when they don’t fit his confirmation bias, Oz does his viewers a disservice. His show needs a disclaimer. Like horoscopes and psychics, the Dr. Oz show is “For entertainment purposes only."
Kindke said…
I have to admit ive gone off coconut oil, much prefer coconut milk because its much more palatable especially with some stevia in it. coconut milk is also not empty calories :D

I think the other point about empty calories is that they are suppose to be hyper-palatable. But this tends only to hold true for the refined carbs. Coconut oil is anything but hyper-palatable.
We're from the Caribbean, so I grew up eating coconut "meat", drinking real coconut water (from the coconut, not a can, sweetened or otherwise), and my mom made homemade coconut candy from said coconuts (coconut meat, sugar, pretty much, sometimes she added cinnamon, but I hated those.) As a poor kid, she used to sell those candies. (Yes, child labor. hah.)

I love coconut water and drink it almost daily. I would love some of my mom's coconut candy, but she's gone to Heaven. We used to elbow each other to get at the "jelly"...mmmm...that gooey stuff inside that you scrape at after you drain the water. The meat is not my fave, as you have to chew it FOREVER....

But I don't understand the swigging of coconut oil. I do use it to cook. I love the coconutty flavor it imparts to my gluten free pancakes. (I mostly use Olive Oil, as mom used it a lot in cooking, so habit.) When I haunted some low-carb venues online, I saw folks taking it down by the tablespoon and I was like, "yeah, but WHY?" I can understand if you like it for cooking, but EATING? I don't eat spoonfuls of butter. I only drink spoonfuls of olive oil if I have a sore throat (as that was my mom's remedy, alternating honey and lemon on a spoon with olive oil and salt. )

Eating pure fat makes no sense to me unless you're like starving to death and need calories pronto and that's right there on hand...
Oh, but I'll add that non-nutritional uses of coconut oil are a factor whether one purchases or not. It's great for the hair and skin. Lots of folks with issues of allergies to fancier hair and skin products have success with coconut oil. Cheap to use it as a lip balm and hair sealant, for conditioning treatment (leave on hair overnight). I will note it lasts a long time, a very stable fat. I've had a jar sitting on the counter for two years that smelled and tasted fresh. Olive oil turns rather quickly. I wouldn't leave butter on my counter for two to three years....
Unknown said…
This is bugging me

What do we mean by a paleo diet??
Do we mean the tropical forest diet of our ape ancestors seven million years in the past? Do we mean the shift towards a higher proportion of high-quality food items with the transition from Australopithecus to Homo about two million years ago? Or do we mean the co-evolution of humans and domesticated food production over the past 10,000 years?

Hunter-gatherer diets—a different perspective

"Humans come from a fairly generalized line of higher primates, a lineage able to utilize a wide range of plant and animal foods. There is general agreement that the ancestral line (Hominoidea) giving rise to humans was strongly herbivorous Modern human nutritional requirements (eg, the need for a dietary source of vitamin C), features of the modern human gut (haustrated colon), and the modern human pattern of digestive kinetics (similar to that of great apes) suggest an ancestral past in which tropical plant foods formed the basis of the daily diet, with perhaps some opportunistic intake of animal matter.

"When hunter-gatherers eventually extended their range into higher latitudes, where plant growth is greatly curtailed, they must have been forced to live largely or entirely on raw animal matter, including their own body fat. Alaskan Eskimos, for example, had an estimated total daily energy intake of 12552 kJ (3000 kcal): ≈50% from fat, ≈30–35% from protein, and ≈15–20% from carbohydrates, largely glycogen from meat .

However, because some hunter-gatherer societies obtained most of their dietary energy from wild animal fat and protein does not imply that this is the ideal diet for modern humans, nor does it imply that modern humans have genetic adaptations to such diets. It does, however, indicate that humans can thrive on extreme diets as long as these diets contribute the full range of essential nutrients."

Back to Basics: Why Foods of Wild Primates Have Relevance for Modern Human Health

Alaskan Arctic Eskimo: responses to a customary high fat diet
Gabriella Kadar said…
Princess, agreed that coconut oil is good for skin. I've got a little container in the cupholder in the car for dry lip application. It works fast and isn't addictive like the various lip balms all these 20 somethings are forever applying to their lips. Like, what's with that?

Very little coconut oil goes very far. Coconut oil takes forever to get rancid but cocoabutter lasts forever. Good for rapid wound healing and scar prevention. Maybe because it covers well and prevents oxidation.

Evelyn, not fair about the antibiotics and sugar application. Coconut oil and sunflower oil are both legitimate salves for skin infections or prevention of same. Olive oil, not. North American aboriginal people used to mix red earths into animal fat to spread over skin to discourage biting insects and whatnot. Paleolithic peoples probably used various clays mixed with animal fats for same purpose. (Sounds a lot like the 'foundations' being sold to women to cover 'uneven coloured' skin... titanium dioxide and whatever else is mixed up in those little bottles of skin tone fluids. The thing is these mineral foundations are actually a good skin protectant for those with sensitive skin and rosacea.)
Diana said…
I second that emotion - "coconut oil is anything but hyper-palatable." I went thru the requisite coconut oil phase, thinking it was healthy. I didn't like the taste and ended up throwing it away. And I'm so fanatic about not throwing food away that I will re-purpose stale bread.
Woodey said…
I agree Charles...actually the only times I watch Dr.Oz is when the Soup shows clips of some of the oddball things he does and talks about. I have a real hard time taking anything seriously on that show. Him and Dr.Phil give a bad name to the professions they represent.
Diana said…
"It works fast and isn't addictive like the various lip balms all these 20 somethings are forever applying to their lips. Like, what's with that?"

A sexual signal. Come hither. The latter-day version of tossing one's mane back in proud contempt. That's a bit too too for modern tastes.
Woodey said…
HMMM...I'm glad you did a post on this topic Carbsane, but I am not sure what to make of it. I like cooking with coconut oil and I like how it is not a heavy oil and doesn't make the food I cook with greasy. I always assumed this was a good sign of a healthy oil.

I have Bruce Fife's book the Coconut Oil Miracle, while I don't agree with everything (anytime someone attributes a food to be miraculous it's not) I think he has some good points. However, I have learned my lesson from my LC year and am not a coconut oil nut nor do I use it for anything above a tablespoon a day when I cook a stir fry.

On another note I don't know enough about the ins and outs of coconut oil or of fats in general to sort a lot of stuff out...here is a link to Fife's site: http://www.coconutresearchcenter.org/

I would love it if over time you could read it and come up with a blog post in regards to his site, his claims, and a little more on coconut oil.

Gabriella Kadar said…
"Come hither?" Gotsta be kidding. These kids are applying the stuff every 2 or 3 minutes in all sorts of situations having nothing to do with sex. Maybe it's a way of discharging anxiety?
Sanjeev said…
combine the
magical properties of Eskimo (Yupik/Inuit) diet

with loads of coconut oil and
Palm oil, and
Oprah's tea and
Deepak chOPRAH's ayurveda[0]

and YOU TOO can become a fat-burner whose power output rivals a nuclear power plant's (net fat loss? ...)


[0] haven't come across much of this recently, wonder if he's stopped putting his name on the Ayurvedic stuff he used to
Diana said…
Not kidding. Every situation to a kid has to do with sex. What has happened to your memory?
Diana said…
Charles, I have to admit that when I began reading about the Paleo diet, I did not know that the Paleolithic era was 2.6 Million years long. As soon as I learned that, I realized that the whole notion of a "Paleo diet" was absurd.
Gabriella Kadar said…
Slow? Maybe I was just slow. Or it's Asperger's or something.

Come on, I'm old enough to be the mother of some of these people. When they are in the dental chair, they are applying lip balm constantly. These kids view me as a maternal figure. Their blasted lip balm greases up my intraoral mirror. It's a nuisance.

The youngsters to whom I refer work with my daughter. When I drop by, they are doing the same thing at work. My office manager has the same habit but not as bad.

Back in the olden days people applied lip balm to chapped lips. (just stop licking them when outdoors and the problem solves itself) These days? Given how many varieties and flavours are available, lip balm has taken over where cough drops for smokers used to be.
Vaclav K. said…
Empty calories.

Throw Back Pepsi over Coconut oil any day of the week.
blogblog said…
Another day - another completely ignorant rant by Evelyn. Why don't you at least look at a science database such as Medline before make a complete fool of yourself?

Contrary to your claims coconut oil or meat:

- has been shown to be effective in weight loss and has a modest beneficial effect on athletic performance.

- been extensively studied as a feed supplement in the piggery and dairy industries because it has strong antimicrobial properties.

- it an effective emollient and topical antimicrobial agent

BTW sugar only has antimicrobial properties in extremely high concentrations (>70%). It acts as an osmotic agent preventing the growth of bacteria. This is the same mechanism used to preserve dried fruit
Unknown said…
Coconut oil impairs the anti-inflammatory properties of HDL:

Will Hui said…
This may be confounded by a possible effect of vitamin E.
Will Hui said…
Chris Masterjohn commented on the paper here:
Kindke said…
Coconut oil *is* healthy, its a good weight loss aid aswell. But like you, I find it vile to eat.

Jane said…
blogblog, I can't believe you said that. Every time I start to think maybe blogblog isn't so bad, you fall over yourself to prove me wrong.

You are a food scientist, and as such could provide valuable input to this discussion. Insulting Evelyn and giving no references for your claims is not the way to do it.
CarbSane said…
When I was a teen we had flavored Lip Smackers. This is nothing new! But they are only "addictive" because they don't last very long. They weren't used for hydration ..

I have not seen this epidemic of lip balm use you speak of. I find CO annoying for this purpose and have personally reacted oppositely to most reports. EOS balm orbs are my current fave.
CarbSane said…
I'm not against CO as part of one's diet. It is stable and health neutral to healthy. There have been many reports by folks of lipids going out of whack with high CO intake. I personally don't care for it in cooking unless I want a coconut flavor -- perhaps I'm some sort of hypertaster or something -- b/c it changes the taste of every food it touches.

Added fats rightly held a place atop the old food pyramid along with added sweeteners. JMO :D
CarbSane said…
First, if you can't refrain from comments like your first sentence, please refrain from commenting here. You are not welcome if you cannot be civil.

First, you missed the point of coconut vs. the highly refined oil. Weight loss? Clinical trial please? I have seen one where in a controlled intake "muffin" diet replacing LCFA with MCFA led to modest weight loss. Duh, the MCFA contain fewer calories per gram than LCFA.

Topical antimicrobial activity is irrelevant, as is antimicrobial activity in ruminants. I don't doubt there are some benefits to CO consumption, but they are probably as overblown as the pre and probiotic properties of some foods.

CarbSane said…
I don't find it vile, it's just not my favorite and I suspect a mild allergy (though I tolerate fresh coconut just fine and love it). Weight loss aid? I haven't seen much on that other than a study I mentioned elsewhere in comments that used MCT oil.
CarbSane said…
Yeah, CO when you want the coconutty flavor is da bomb (I used to make those flax one minute muffins with cocoa and CO and they were quite good).

Per your last comment, CO has long been used in nutrition for those with impaired absorption -- as a source of calories! Since the MCT's provide more energy than carbs, they are a way to get some fats into people who don't absorb them well.
CarbSane said…
I don't know why, but topical CO is not good for me. Why? No idea. I purchase food grade palm kernel oil from a soap-making place -- PKO has very similar fatty acid profile to CO (quite different from palm oil, however) -- but is odorless and tasteless. I like to use it half and half with butter. In any case when reading about it they mentioned CO in soaps and that's where I learned that too much can be DRYING. Here's one that came up on quick Google: http://www.soap-making-resource.com/coconut-oil-for-soap-making.html
Rad Warrier said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Rad Warrier said…
We continue to use coconut oil as our cooking oil even after landing in Canada years ago because:

1. We like its taste - the aroma of vegetables getting cooked with coconut oil is really an appetizing one for me :)
2. My ancestors, including those as immediate as my parents and those as distant as the ones going back to the mists of pre-history have used it and nothing unhealthy has been known about it, if used in reasonable quantities.

That said, I don't drink it :) Wouldn't dream of adding it in my tea or coffee :)

Besides its oil, coconut as such plays a big role in our diet. Its meat in different forms - grated, ground, as milk, or in cut pieces - is a major ingredient in our spicy curries, cookies and sweet dishes. Tender coconut meat with jaggery ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jaggery ) was a favourite of my boyhood days. It still is, but I don't get to eat it now :(

Abundant coconut consumption has NOT made us any more healthy than the vast majority of human beings not belonging to my tiny homestate and for whom coconut (and its oil) might only be a rare treat.

To digress, coconut oil seems a later arrival than some other oils at least linguistically. The word for 'oil' in the Indo-European languages spoken by a majority of Indians derives from sesame. (Sanskrit 'taila' and modern north Indian languages 'tel' are from 'tila' meaning sesame.) Sesame remains the etymological root for 'oil' in southern Indian languages too that belong to the Dravidian family. For the Indo-European languages of Europe (English for example), the etymology of 'oil' can be traced to olive. It is quite unlikely that paleolithic man used vegetable oils, but when he did begin to use these, coconut oil was not the earliest as the linguistics discussed above show.

Vaclav K. said…
" There have been many reports by folks of lipids going out of whack with high CO intake."

That was my experience. I ditched it.
Diana said…
I don't think it's a better weight loss aid than any other fat. If it satiates, it helps. Otherwise...not so much.

There's no accounting for taste. I just didn't like it. To the extent it cut down on my appetite, it was a weight loss aid.
Diana said…
Jane, not so off-topic....but I am becoming quite impatient with trawling Pubmed for "my favorite ingredient" or "my favorite food". I just don't trust any of these studies that says that this or that food is particularly health - or particularly deadly.
Diana said…

I love actual coconut meat (unlike Princess, because it is so chewy). Coconut meat is to me one of the most delicious things on earth. Added to cookies and desserts it is heaven. Etc.

I think the "coconut oil is healthy" is a misunderstanding of what happened to Pacific Islanders post-WWII. They shifted to variants of SAD and got fat, diabetic and unhealthy. So Westerners in search of health El Dorado focused on the prime ingredient of their traditional diet and fixated on that.

Now you see certain people adding coconut oil to everything, thinking that the additional of coconut oil is healthy, when really it was part of an entire lifestyle.

This is the one thing I agree w/Taubes about in his criticism of olive oil.
Anonymous said…
The notion is absurd but it is another issue of semantics. I think Kurt Harris detailed the essential components of an ancestral/paleo diet quite well imo. He says a high quality meat source is the essential component, and this seems to be supported by the Mat Lalonde's nutrient density data presented at AHS. Then comes the starchy tubers as an important source of carbohydrate. The fact that Lalonde's (admittedly limited) nutrient density research supported Kurt's earlier hypothesis based on his readings of anthroplogy reading is interesting.
CarbSane said…
I was once asked here why I only add carbs "at the end" and why I didn't see that was empty calories. What I said at the time and agree with still, is that protein is really the basis for any diet. If one chooses animal proteins, these generally come packaged with considerable fat calories, thus one rounds out the diet with carbs as needed. If one prefers veggie sources of protein, these come with carbs and for the vegetarian, the fats are essentially the extra stuff to round out the diet.
CarbSane said…
The analogy to olive oil is apropos. One of the veggies I knew in the 90's added it to everything. Doused salads, put it on veggies, etc. even ate a grody mayo (don't recall what was used instead of egg yolk) made with olive oil. She was one of the few true veggies I've known (not ovo-lacto) who struggled at times with weight.
oh, Diana, I love coconut meat (shredded or whatever) in cookies/desserts. It's taking a chunk of it from a fresh coconut and chewing it that is less than ideal for me. I'd do it, get tired, spit it out. haha. But a bit in a cookie or coconut flour for baking..nice.
Gabriella Kadar said…
I don't quite 'get it'. Coconut oil is all omega 6 fatty acid which is not preferable to omega 3 fatty acid.

Or is that all rubbish too?

I do occasionally use coconut milk in my cooking but I haven't been able to 'get into' using coconut oil despite having a tub of it around forever and ever. Maybe I'm just too old to change. (There's something to be said for that too.)

I can appreciate Rad's point in that coconut oil is what he grew up with, just like how I grew up on lard. (regardless, I still can't re-create the fantabulous aroma of my grandmother's omelets fried in lard. Probably the pigfeed has changed since the early 1960s and this affects the aroma. It was so good, honestly, if I ever smell that again, I'll knock on doors.)

Gabriella Kadar said…
Just learned something. Thanks, Evelyn. I always thought it was 'grotty' but 'grody' means the same thing in American. Funny because I'd pronounce 'grody' like 'Brody'.
rodeo said…
Hi Emily. Evidence based fitness did a meta-analysis of sorts of MCTs and coconut oil a while back:


I haven't looked deeper into the studies, but he was surprised to find a small but significant decrease in fat mass for the intervention groups. This was for small amounts of coconut oil though, about 20 grams and more than that did not seem to have any extra effect. I think that Bullet Proof-coffee would mean you'd put more than that in just the morning espresso.
Diana said…
It is not a question of semantics but of facts.

Kurt Harris is a radiologist who has no credentials in the study of the Paleolithic era, nor has Mat Lalonde. As for the Ancestral Health forums, I don't care who said what there, they are merely echo chambers for whatever trendy stuff some dude comes up with.

I just happened to read the article about Napoleon Chagnon in the NY Times; I suggest you read it. The issue as to how much protein the Yanomamo/Yanomami ("the fierce people") was and is a big deal.

Apparently their chief protein source was grubs. High quality meat source?


Although the notion of a Paleo diet is absurd I don't think it's absurd to figure out a healthy macronutrient ratio. I somehow doubt that Paleo people were eating lots of salt or fat. I cannot see how either would be possible. Sugars and starches, that's a different matter.
Susanne said…
It is pronounced like "Brody", at least in my high school memories. "To the max" is the intensifier, or at least was in my high school days. :)
Susanne said…
Note that my inadvertent repetition of "high school" is not meant to cast any aspersions, given that "Come On, Eileen" by Dexy's Midnight Runners is playing on my iTunes at this very moment, and I'm pretty sure I have used "Grody to the max" at some point n the last week, probably in front of a lecture hall full of very puzzled university students born in 1994.
CarbSane said…
I was actually thinking grody to the max ;-) In a few weeks I'm going to have to come up with more current prominent court cases than OJ Simpson.
Unknown said…
Increasing dietary linoleic acid does not increase tissue arachidonic acid content in adults consuming Western-type diets: a systematic review

Comparison of Low Fat and Low Carbohydrate Diets on Circulating Fatty Acid Composition and Markers of Inflammation

Relationship of Plasma Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids to Circulating Inflammatory Markers

And I know these were on a bodybuilding website but nevertheless


Jane said…
Yes. There's a problem here. The things in modern diets that really make you fat and sick take many years to do it, and in the case of obesity it may take more than one generation. Any short term study is likely to give you the wrong answer.
rodeo said…
It seems like all Volek studies are biased due to greater weight loss in the low-carb intervention group. It's not like lower inflammation due to weight loss is surprising. Or what do you think, Charles?
MM said…

Coconut oil is mostly saturated fat. I looked it up on the USDA nutrietn database: http://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/610?fg=&man=&lfacet=&format=&count=&max=25&offset=&sort=&qlookup=coconut+oil

I love that site, and if I ever wonder about what's in a food I just look it up. I used coconut oil for a while, and then looked it up one day, and was surprised at all the zeros. It hardly even has any vitamin E. So, I switched back to olive oil. Any cooking fat is going to be mostly zeros on the nutrition sheet, but I like mine to at least contain some fat soluble vitamins.
Diana said…
I wonder how many of the Paleolithic protein calories were provided by other people. Ritual consumption of the dead is not uncommon among primitive people. And of course there's always killing human enemies. In New Guinea these were called "long pig."

There's so much we don't know and don't want to know about our ancestors. They sure weren't subsisting on clean grass-fed beef.
Unknown said…
Coconut oil is a good example but it basically applies to all added fats/oils. It's the reason I rarely use fats/oils. It's strange so many refer to grains as "empty calories" when they're far from it with their vitamins minerals and antioxidants, resistant starch, etc. Paleo people often refer to their diet as "real food" or "whole foods" while getting a significant amount of calories from isolated extracted refined oils.

Talking about wasted calories and fats you have to see this video. lol
Anonymous said…
so you can be in ketosis if you consume leafy greens like salad stuff, like italian dressing, spinach,artichokes,romaine,iceberg,onion,cilantro...?
CarbSane said…
Sure! Heck, you can even eat 2-3 oz real dark chocolate and still be in ketosis. Or so says Jimmy Moore.
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