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.
This article discusses the evidence behind 10 possible health benefits of coconut oil.
1. Coconut oil contains healthy fatty acids
Coconut oil is high in certain saturated fats. These fats have different effects on 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.
2. 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 that lives 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 coconuts — along with tubers, fruit, and fish —and had a little stroke or heart disease is the Kitavan population in Papua, New Guinea.
3. 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.
4. Coconut oil has antimicrobial effects
Twelve-carbon lauric acid makes up about 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.
For example, test-tube studies show that these substances can help to kill the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections, and the yeast Candida albicans, 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 of the common cold or other internal infections.
5. 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 MCTs 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 at lunch. These studies were small and had a very short timescale. If this 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 sources of 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.
6. 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 in children.
The diet dramatically reduces the rate of seizures in children with 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 concentrations of ketones in the blood.
Because the MCTs in coconut oil get transported to the liver and turned into ketones, healthcare professionals may use a modified keto diet that includes MCTs and a more generous carbohydrate allowance to induce ketosis and help treat epilepsy.
7. Coconut oil can raise HDL 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 soybean oil. Another study involving 116 adults showed that following a diet program that included coconut oil raised levels of HDL (good) cholesterol in people with coronary artery disease.
8. 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.
Coconut oil has grown in popularity in recent years, amid claims that it can do everything from supporting weight loss to slowing the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Coconut oil contains over 80% saturated fat. Some experts have linked saturated fats with cardiovascular and other diseases.
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9. 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.
10. 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 to lose weight. Abdominal fat, or visceral fat, lodges in the abdominal cavity and around organs. MCTs appear to be especially effective at reducing belly fat compared to LCTs.
Abdominal fat is the most harmful type and has links to 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 benefit, but the evidence is inconsistent overall.
If you want to buy coconut oil, there’s an excellent selection online with thousands of customer reviews. It’s also available in most health food stores. In order to get the potential health benefits outlined in the article, make sure to choose organic, virgin coconut oil rather than refined versions.
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