Coconut oil, or copra oil, is an edible oil extracted from the kernel or meat of mature coconuts harvested from the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). It has various applications. Because of its high saturated fat content, it is slow to oxidize and, thus, resistant to rancidification, lasting up to six months at 24°C (75°F) without spoiling.
Due to its high levels of saturated fat, the World Health Organization, the United States Department of Health and Human Services, United States Food and Drug Administration, American Heart Association, American Dietetics Association, British National Health Service, British Nutrition Foundation, and Dietitians of Canada advise that coconut oil consumption should be limited or avoided.
Coconut oil is widely marketed as a “superfood.”
The unique combination of fatty acids in coconut oil could have positive effects on your health, which may include encouraging fat loss, improving heart health, and boosting brain function.
HEALTH BENEFITS OF COCONUT OIL
■ COCONUT OIL CONTAINS HEALTHY FATTY ACIDS
Coconut oil is high in certain saturated fats. These fats have different effects in the body compared with most other dietary fats.
The fatty acids in coconut oil can encourage the body to burn fat, and they provide quick energy to the body and brain. They also raise HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood, which may help to reduce heart disease risk
Most dietary fats are categorized as long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), while coconut oil contains some medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are shorter fatty acid chains.
When you eat MCTs, they tend to go straight to the liver. The body uses them as a quick source of energy or turns them into ketones.
Ketones can have powerful benefits for the brain, and researchers are studying ketones as a treatment for epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and other conditions.
Coconut oil is high in fats called medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs which the body metabolizes differently than most other fats. MCTs are responsible for many of the health benefits of coconut oil.
■ EATING COCONUT MAY BENEFIT HEART HEALTH
Coconut is an uncommon food in the Western world, with health-conscious people being the main consumers.
However, in some parts of the world, coconut – which is loaded with coconut oil – is a dietary staple that people have thrived on for generations.
A good example is the Tokelauans, a population who live in the South Pacific. According to a 1981 study, this population was getting over 60% of their calories from coconuts.
Researchers reported that this population had good health with very low rates of heart disease.
Another example of a population who ate a lot of coconut – along with tubers, fruits, and fish – and had little stroke or heart disease is the Kitavan population in Papua, New Guinea.
Several populations around the world have thrived for generations eating a substantial amount of coconut, and studies show they have good heart health.
■ MCTs CAN ENCOURAGE FAT BURNING
Obesity is one of the biggest health conditions affecting the Western world today.
While some people think obesity is just a matter of how many calories someone eats, the source of those calories is important, too. Different foods affect the body and hormones in different ways.
The MCTs in coconut oil can increase the number of calories the body burns compared to longer–chain fatty acids.
One study found that consuming 15-30 grams of MCTs per day increased 24-hour energy expenditure by 5%.
However, these studies didn’t specifically look at the effects of coconut oil. They examined the health effects of MCTs – excluding lauric acid – which make up only about 14% of coconut oil.
There’s currently no good evidence to say that eating coconut oil itself will increase the amount of energy a person uses up.
People should keep in mind that coconut oil is very high in calories and can easily lead to weight gain when they consume it in large amounts.
Research says that MCTs can increase the number of calories burned over 24 hours by as much as 5%. However, research has not shown that coconut oil itself has the same effect.
■ COCONUT OIL HAS ANTIMICROBIAL EFFECTS
Twelve-carbon lauric acid makes up 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil.
When the body digests lauric acid, it forms a substance called monolaurin. Both lauric acid and monolaurin can kill harmful pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
Test-tube studies show that these substances can help to kill the bacteria. Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections, and the yeast Candida albican a common source of yeast infections in humans.
There’s also some evidence that using coconut oil as a mouthwash, a process called oil pulling, could benefit oral hygiene, though researchers consider the evidence weak.
There’s no evidence that coconut oil reduces the risk for the common cold or other internal infections.
Using coconut oil as a mouthwash could help to prevent infection in the mouth, but researchers need more evidence before they can make strong claims.
■ MCTs CAN REDUCE HUNGER
One interesting feature of MCTs is that they can reduce hunger.
This may be related to the way the body metabolizes fats, because ketones can reduce a person’s appetite.
In one study, researchers fed varying amounts of MTCs and LCTs to 6 healthy men. The men who ate the most MCTs ate fewer calories per day.
Another study in 14 healthy men reported that those who ate the most MCTs at breakfast ate fewer calories a lunch.
These studies were small and had a very short timescale. If these effect were to persist over the long term, it could lead to reduced body weight over several years.
Although coconut oil is one of the richest natural MCTs, there’s no evidence that coconut oil intake reduces appetite more than other types of oils.
In fact, one study has reported that coconut oil is less satiating than MCT oil.
MCTs can significantly reduce appetite, which may lead to reduced body weight over the long term.
■ MCTs MAY REDUCE SEIZURES
Researchers are currently studying the ketogenic diet (very low in carbs, very high in fats) to treat various disorders.
The best known therapeutic use of this diet is treating drug-resistant epilepsy, even those who haven’t had success with multiple different types of drugs. Researchers aren’t sure why.
Reducing carbohydrate intake and increasing fat intake leads to greatly increased concentration of ketones in the blood.
Because the MCTs in coconut oil get transported the liver and turned into ketones, healthcare professionals may use a modified ketones diet that includes MCTs and a more generous carbohydrate allowance to induce ketosis and help treat epilepsy.
The MCTs in coconut oil can in grease blood concentration of ketone bodies, which can help reduce seizures in children with epilepsy.
■ COCONUT OIL CAN RAISE CHOLESTEROL
Coconut oil contains natural saturated fats that increase HDL (good) cholesterol in the body. They may also help turn LDL (bad) cholesterol into a less harmful form.
By increasing HDL, many experts believe that coconut oil could be good for heart health compared to many other fats.
In one study in 40 women, coconut oil reduced total and LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL compared to soybeans oil.
Another study involving 116 adults adults showed that following a diet program that included coconut oil raised levels of HDL (good) cholesterol in people with coronary disease.
A few studies have shown that coconut oil can raise blood levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, which is linked to improved metabolic health and a lower risk of heart disease.
■ COCONUT OIL CAN PROTECT THE SKIN, HAIR, AND TEETH
Coconut oil has many uses that have nothing to do with eating it.
Many people are using it for cosmetic purposes to improve the health and appearance of their skin and hair.
Studies show that coconut oil can improve the moisture content of dry skin, and it can also reduce the symptoms of eczema.
Coconut oil can also protect against hair damage. One study shows that it may work as a weak sunscreen, blocking about 20% of the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
Oil pulling, which involves swishing coconut oil around the mouth like mouthwash, can kill some of the harmful bacteria in the mouth. This may improve dental health and reduce bad breath, though more research is needed.
People can apply coconut oil to their skin, hair, and teeth. Studies suggest it works as a skin moisturizer, protects against skin damage, and improves oral health.
■ MCTs CAN BOOST BRAIN FUNCTION IN ALZHEIMER’S DISEASE
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. It usually affects older adults.
In people with Alzheimer’s disease, the brain’s ability to use glucose for energy is reduced.
Researchers have suggested that ketones can provide an alternative energy source for these malfunctioning brain cells to reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The authors of a 2006 study reported that consuming MCTs improved brain function in people with milder forms of Alzheimer’s disease.
However, research is still early, and there’s no evidence to suggest that coconut oil itself helps with Alzheimer’s disease.
Early studies suggests that MCTs can increase blood levels of ketones, supplying energy for the brain cells of people with Alzheimer’s disease and relieving symptoms.
■ COCONUT OIL MAY HELP REDUCE HARMFUL ABDOMINAL FAT
Given that some of the fatty acids in coconut oil can reduce appetite and increase fat burning, evidence suggests that it can also help you lose weight.
Abdominal fat, or visceral fat, lodges in the abdominal cavity and around the organs. MCTs appear to be especially effective at reducing belly fat compared to LCTs.
Abdominal fat is the most harmful type and has links with many chronic diseases.
Waist circumference is an easy, accurate marker for the amount of fat in the abdominal cavity.
In a study of 40 women with abdominal obesity, those who took 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of coconut oil per day had a significant reduction in both BMI and waist circumference over 12 weeks.
Another study in 20 males with obesity noted a reduction in waist circumference of 1.1 inches (2.86 cm) after 4 weeks of taking 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of coconut oil per day.
Coconut oil is still high in calories so people should use it sparingly. Replacing some of your other cooking fats with coconut oil could have a small weight loss benefits, but the evidence is inconsistent overall.