First, I want to acknowledge that some studies appear to support claims that coconut oil can help control weight and cholesterol levels. On closer examination, it seems more than a coincidence that most of those studies come from coconut-exporting Asian countries. Still, the chemical makeup of coconut oil provides a basis for these claims, so let’s take a closer look.
How Does Coconut Oil Differ from Other Oils?
One of the best answers I’ve found to that question appeared in the June, 2012 issue of the Nutrition Action Health Letter published by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Here’s a summary:
A whopping 92 percent of coconut oil’s fat is saturated. That makes it far more saturated than most other fats. Olive and soybean oils, for example, are about 15 percent saturated, while beef fat is about 50 percent saturated and butter, 63 percent. Only palm kernel oil — 82 percent — rivals coconut oil. All those saturated chemical bonds explain why coconut oil is solid at room temperature and doesn’t spoil quickly — like the bacon fat your mother kept under the sink in an old coffee can.
Coconut oil is also unusual because it contains a high percentage of medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs. Most oils consist entirely of long-chain triglycerides –LCTs — which are more than 12 carbons long. Soybean oil, for example, is 100 percent LCTs. Medium-chain triglycerides are 6 to 12 carbons long. Coconut oil contains roughly 40 percent LCTs and 60 percent MCTs.
“The difference matters because our bodies metabolize MCTs differently than LCTs. MCTs are transported directly from the intestines to the liver, where they’re likely to be directly burned off as fuel and raise the metabolic rate slightly,” explains researcher Marie-Pierre St-Onge of Columbia University. That means less is available to be circulated throughout the body and deposited in fat tissues.
So, if you use coconut oil instead of other oils, will those extra pounds melt away?
Coconut and Weight Loss
The evidence behind the weight loss claims for coconut oil are pretty thin, St-Onge says.
“People may be attributing to coconut oil the results from studies of MCT oil,” St-Onge explains. She conducted her own clinical studies on MCT oil. Over the four months of her largest and longest study, those using MCT oil lost four pounds more than those using olive oil.
St-Onge’s bottom line: “The effect of MCT oil on weight loss is modest.” Since coconut oil contains only about half as much medium-chain triglycerides as MCT oil, would coconut oil have just half of that “modest” impact on weight? The studies haven’t been done.
Coconut Oil and Cholesterol
Studies have shown that coconut oil increases both good and bad cholesterol. We know bad cholesterol increases the risk for heart disease, but it isn’t clear if increasing good cholesterol at the same time will mitigate that risk.
Many major organizations, such as the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association, still recommend against using significant amounts of coconut oil. The science-based Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database indicates there’s insufficient evidence on the effectiveness of coconut oil for heart health and other medical conditions.
This month’s issue of Mayo Clinic’s Health Letter advises that fish oil is a better bet than coconut oil:
Limited research suggests that eating higher amounts of coconut oil may be associated with increased levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol — the “good” cholesterol. However… reliable scientific evidence on its use to treat cholesterol so far isn’t conclusive.
In terms of oil supplements that may influence HDL, there’s better evidence for fish oil.
Now, the positive scoop on coconut oil.
Using Coconut Oil in the Kitchen
If you go on the internet, you’ll find hundreds of sites listing ways to use coconut oil in the kitchen. I’ve picked just one — Melissa Clark’s “Good Appetite” column in The New York Times. Here’s what she has to say: “Non-hydrogenated, virgin coconut oil — the pure stuff actually squeezed from coconuts — is not as bad for you as we were led to believe.” She makes a distinction between “good” and “bad” fats. Virgin unprocessed coconut oil is viewed as a “good fat.” It contains lauric acid, which has not been shown to carry a risk of heart disease, unlike the “bad fats” Clark cautions:
Of course, you can go to the Internet and type in lauric acid, and it starts to tell you that it’s good for everything. It’s good for acne…. It’s going to cure the common cold. It’s going to help you lose weight. None of those things are proven at all.
Coconut oil has some proven results in the kitchen, however. “It cooks food beautifully because it can withstand pretty high temperatures,” Clark says. It doesn’t impart a bitter flavor like other cooking oils. “It gives just a real gentle sweetness to foods.”
But because of that slight sweetness, coconut oil isn’t a full-scale replacement for standard cooking oils. Clark recommends using it for sautéing things like chicken or vegetables. She’s particularly enthusiastic about using it to cook sweet potatoes.
A warning: Coconut oil contains almost 120 calories in 1 tbsp, nearly 14 g. of fat and no fiber.
Using Coconut Oil Outside the Kitchen
Google shows almost as many recommendations for coconut oil outside the kitchen. Here’s just a few:
- Used as an over-all body moisturizer, it’s readily absorbed and great for rough or dry skin
- Great as a hair conditioner
- Spreading a little around the eyes helps prevent wrinkles
- Can be used to remove eye makeup
- Helps sooth skin irritations, mosquito bites, shingles, etc.