Coconut oil has been a hot topic lately. So, so similar to my Omega-3 review, I’ll discuss what it is, health benefits, research and my opinions on the topic.
What is it? How does it differ?
Coconut oil is fat but it has some very unique properties that have many people considering it to be a “super food”. First, it’s 85% saturated fat. And while, traditional wisdom tells us to stay away from saturated fat, approximately 65% of those are medium chain fatty acids whereas most oils contain long chain fatty acids. Medium chain fatty acids are absorbed differently in the body from long chains. They can travel directly to the liver without being broken down first.
The health claims on coconut oil are vast including weight loss, preventing infections, boosting brain function in Alzheimer’s and reduction in cardiovascular disease.
I’m going to focus the evidence on one category – weight loss.
Coconut Oil & Weight Loss – The Evidence
Because Medium Chain Triglycerides are absorbed directly to the liver, the theory is that they have more time to be oxidized and therefore are less likely to be stored as fat. What’s the evidence on this theory?
In a 2008 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers completed a study on 31 overweight men & women where they were either given 18-24g of Medium Chain Triglyceride (MCT) oil or olive oil. The participants also received group dietary counseling for 16 weeks, which suggested 1500kcal/d for women and 1800kcal/d for men. Both groups lost weight however the weight loss in the MCT group was significantly greater than the olive oil group. (3.2kg vs 1.4kg weight loss, respectively).
This is the hallmark study on which most weight loss claims of coconut oil come from. However, there are some disadvantages to this study. Most notably, the study used pure MCT oil. Coconut oil does contain MCT’s but only about 65%. Therefore, extrapolating these results to coconut oil may not yield the same results. Second, the study sample size is small. And third, while participants were counseled to consume a weight loss diet of 1500 or 1800 kcal. There is no mention of tracking their dietary intake. Therefore, it is difficult to determine if the weight loss difference is truly from MCT oil.
In a 2011 study published in ISRN Pharmacology, 20 overweight men and women consumed 30mL virgin coconut oil daily for four weeks. They were instructed to continue with their regular dietary & physical activity patterns. Researchers found a statistically significant reduction in waist circumference for men. While women’s waist circumference decreased, it was not statistically significant. There were not significant changes in other factors including weight loss or body fat percentage.
In a 2008 study published in Lipids, 40 overweight women were randomly assigned to either 30mL soybean or coconut oil daily. Both groups received individual dietary counseling by a nutritionist throughout the 12 week study. All participants also took part in physical activity program 4 days a week with a trainer. Dietary compliance was measured using a 3-day 24hr recall before and after the intervention. Both groups lost weight at the end of the 12 week study but there was not a significant difference between the two groups. However, there was a significant difference in the waist circumference between the two groups. Also it is important to note that despite coconut oil being 85% saturated fat, there were no undesirable alterations in the lipid panel of those consuming coconut oil (i.e. no significant increase in LDL cholesterol or triglycerides)
After looking through the current evidence, I do not believe there is enough support to currently make a claim that coconut oil aids in weight loss. I think further research is needed. However, there does appear to be a link between coconut oil and reduction in waist circumference, which has documented benefits for reduction of cardiovascular disease risk. And given that cholesterol was not negatively affected, I think coconut oil is a safe choice to use in your diet.
How Much and How To Take It?
I wouldn’t suggest guzzling coconut oil in addition to your current fat intake. You must remember that a tablespoon contains approximately 120 calories, therefore if trying to lose weight or waist circumference, adding additional fat/calories is likely not the solution. I think it would be better suited to use coconut oil as a replacement for some of your current oil choices such as olive or canola oil. It is excellent for cooking or baking because it is stable at high temperatures. Alternatively, you could use it for your salad dressings, as a spread on toast or even melted on to popcorn.
Have you ever tried coconut oil? Are there other aspects of coconut oil benefits you are interested in?