Question: Coconut oil is being touted as the new wonder food, the miracle cure-all for numerous ailments. I can’t help thinking it seems too good to be true. Is it?
The important thing we need to be clear about is that fats are not created equal. All fats – including meat fat – have a purpose for human consumption. A simple analysis of any fat will reveal definite pros and cons for each, dependent on their chemical composition.
If you compare coconut oil to flaxseed oil, for example, you find coconut oil contains none of the omega three, six, or nine essential fatty acids present in flaxseed oil. Certainly, it’s rich in other nutrients including a number of the B vitamins; antioxidants; skin ageing retardants and growth-promoting factors. And on the latter, the interesting thing about this discovery is that it doesn’t promote the growth of skin cancer cells.
However, it comes back to the particular types of fatty acids that differentiate coconut oil from others. While substantial research has been conducted on this aspect, the majority of studies actually involved rats, and we need to understand that the findings do not necessarily translate to humans. So while coconut oil may help weight loss in rats, this same effect may not occur in humans as the numerous obesogenic pathways in the human physiology are quite different from those in rats.
Still, the research suggests coconut oil has a range of beneficial actions in humans.
- It’s effective for skin hydration, skin elasticity and as a mild sunscreen.
- It appears to inhibit osteoclast activity, so may play a role in preventing osteoporosis.
- It improves insulin sensitivity and can help support immunity.
- Coconut oil can benefit dental health when used in oil pulling, which involves swishing a tablespoon of oil around the mouth for 10 or 20 minutes, then spitting it out. It helps prevent plaque, gingivitis and bad breath.
- Lauric acid, a medium-chain triglyceride present in coconut oil, reduces fungal infections: I use it topically when assisting people to control fungal and skin infections.
- Lauric acid also produces a substance called a monolaurin, which experimentally has been found to reduce the virus in HIV patients.
- They also found in veterinary science that coconut oil is really good for skin repair in feline skin diseases – and it won’t harm cats if they lick it.
- Coconut oil’s mildly ketogenic activity means it may benefit epileptic children. This ketone ability can actually be used as an energy source in the brain. So when you’re experiencing a little fog, try taking a teaspoon of coconut oil.
- A 2006 study of Alzheimer’s patients found the consumption of a medium-chain triglyceride – and we’re not actually talking about coconut oil itself, but about an isolated medium-chain triglyceride – resulted in a significant improvement in brain function. The reason behind this is people with Alzheimer’s disease can actually have a type of brain hypoglycaemia, meaning there’s a reduced uptake of glucose by the brain; the medium-chain triglyceride acts as a ketone that feeds the brain.
- There’s also a suggestion that medium-chain triglycerides may help protect against plaque build-up in Alzheimer’s disease because these triglycerides do not oxidise in tissue.
The weight-loss question
And now the burning question: does coconut oil promote weight loss?
Our body actually metabolises medium-chain triglycerides slightly differently from the long-chain triglycerides found in meat fat. Medium-chain triglycerides are converted into energy very quickly, providing fuel for the brain and for muscle function instead of being stored as fat – providing the quantity taken is small enough.
The other aspect here is that medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil can cause an increase in energy, which means you might actually move a bit more. One study found that 10 to 30 grams of the medium-chain triglycerides could actually increase energy expenditure by about five percent.
However, 30 grams of coconut oil at 39 kilojoules per gram equals more than 1000 kilojoules per day, or one-eighth of a female’s dietary intake. Two tablespoons of coconut oil a day is the dose often touted on the Web, whereas the correct dose is meant to be 15 grams.
But here is the kicker for me: all of the weight-loss trials have used a pharmaceutical-grade medium-chain triglyceride. Coconut oil is not a pure medium chain triglyceride: it contains several different triglycerides including caprylic acid, capric acid, caproic acid and lauric acid, which in combination make up only 10 to 15 percent of the oil. The other triglycerides present in coconut oil are not medium chain, and account for about 45 to 50 percent of the oil.
In the trials using medium-chain triglycerides, 99.9 percent of the oil was from a medium-chain triglyceride. So we are not really talking about the same experimental model – and this is the reason we’re not seeing the same weight loss results when coconut oil is used.
I don’t think for one minute you lose weight if you’re consuming large amounts of coconut oil. Others may disagree, but this is my experience in clinical practice.
What can possibly happen, though, is the loss of some abdominal fat, a small study involving 40 women and 20 men found. Replacing other oils with coconut oil over 12 weeks led to a reduction in waist circumference. So the message here is to use coconut oil to replace other oils, not as an addition to your existing diet: this is important.
Keep saturated fat intake in check
Coconut oil is a saturated fat, and solid evidence from numerous studies over the years confirms the importance of reducing total saturated fat. I know there’s a movement towards eating more saturated fat but we have to be careful. In population studies where coconut oil consumption is really high, they found cholesterol levels rose, although there was no cardiovascular disease. People in Polynesian Islands, for example, eat a very pure diet, including large amounts of plant sterols and lots of omega 3 essential fatty acids from fish, which could account for the low incidence of heart disease. They have an active lifestyle and largely avoid alcohol and tobacco.
So if you’re going to use coconut oil as a replacement, the rest of your diet must be high quality. Intake should probably be around 15 grams a day, a single tablespoon, which would bring you to your upper limit of saturated fat for the day.
I will stress that if you want to include coconut oil in your diet you definitely need to talk to your naturopath or your nutritionist to work out a healthy fat regime and ensure you don’t miss out on the vital omega-3s.
And finally, be aware that concerns about the sustainability of coconut oil production has led to the introduction of genetically modified coconut crops. So be sure to choose certified organic extra-virgin coconut oil.