According to supporters, it can help you lose weight, improve your cardiovascular health, boost your immune system, prevent Alzheimer’s and seizures, and kill off a variety of microorganisms – all while giving your skin and hair a healthy luster. But is coconut oil really this panacea that it’s proponents (and merchants) would have us believe?
The short answer: Maybe.
But let’s look at some of the research to expand on that conclusion.
What Makes It So Special?
In general, most of the proposed benefits of coconut oil come from a very unique type of fat that the fruit contains in unusually high doses called medium-chain triglycerides (MCT). While all fats are extremely calorie dense, MCTs have a much simpler chemical structure than their long-chain counterparts. This allows your body to metabolize MCTs quickly and use them as an almost immediate source of fuel – similar to the way that it uses carbohydrates – instead of packing them away as body fat.
The key difference between using MCTs and carbs for fuel, though, is that the simple fats have a lot more too offer in the way of energy. Each gram of carbohydrates that you eat gives you about 4 calories. A single gram of MCTs, however, delivers a whopping 8 calories – double the amount of fuel packed into the same rapid-release dose. Based on these properties alone, it seems logical that MCT supplementation would be a great idea for athletes looking for a solid source of energy.
And some animal studies have shown promise in this respect. Unfortunately, the human trials have all been too small to be reliable and have produced frustratingly conflicting results.
Human studies have, on the other hand, suggested that MCTs have promise in improving body composition and increasing insulin sensitivity. The special fats could also be helpful in improving your overall cholesterol profile. Keep in mind, though, that we’re talking about complete coconut oil here – not just MCTs. There’s a lot more to consider.
The Flip Side
First of all, let’s talk about calories. Any excess calories, regardless of their source, will get stored as body fat. That means that if you take in any calories and don’t use them almost immediately, you’re going to gain weight – even if they’re of the medium-chain variety. So while this sort of rocket-fuel might be beneficial for athletes, it’s likely just extra calories to the average person.
And, the sad truth is that coconut oil isn’t actually all that great a source of MCTs. In fact, it has the same concentration as butter – about 15 percent. If you would like to give MCTs a try then, you’re better off getting a purified form than using plain old coconut oil.
Then there’s the fact that the vast majority, 90 percent, of the fat in coconut oil is saturated. And, while modern research has shown that saturated fat isn’t the dietary villain we once believed, it’s still not the greatest thing in the world. As mentioned, it is incredibly high in calories which can lead to weight gain – a precursor to diabetes, stroke and heart disease.
While we’re on the topic of heart disease, it’s worth briefly revisiting the topic of cholesterol. According to Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, DrPH, of Harvard Medical School and Harvard School of Public Health, the research into coconut oil’s effect on cholesterol is interesting – but not conclusive.
The bottom line, then, is this: Coconut oil does have some potential benefits when used in moderation. Despite having a very unique blend of fats, coconut oil is still extremely high in calories and should be treated just like any other calorie dense food. If you do decide to use it, make sure that you get a virgin coconut oil that has not been hydrogenated. Athletes looking to give MCT a go as an extra source of energy should consider purified MCT supplements rather than coconut oil
A Word On Brain Health
Apart from the proposed uses mentioned above, coconut oil has also been suggested as being useful in increasing mental clarity and preventing Alzheimer’s disease. While there has been some interesting laboratory results, no quality study has ever proven this theory in humans. Much of the evidence for this use is strictly anecdotal.
But the claims about coconut oil go beyond it’s dietary function and extend to using it on the skin and hair. Happily, it seems to work well in this both these applications. Studies have shown that coconut oil can be helpful in treating a variety of skin conditions and helps to prevent hair damage caused by standard hair-related activities like combing.