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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.

Many manufacturers have begun to use coconut oil in packaged products, and many people use it for cooking. Many products, such as fried foods, sweets, shampoos, coffee, smoothies, contain coconut oil.

In July 2016, results of a survey in the United States showed that 72% of people believed that coconut oil was healthful, but only 37% of nutritionists agreed.

Coconut oil contains over 80% saturated fat. Some experts have linked saturated fats with cardiovascular and other diseases.

The 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting consumption of saturated fats to less than 10% of a day's calories. This means that someone following a 2000-calorie per day diet should eat no more than 20 grams (g) of saturated fat each day.

Find out more about the controversy, and if you should make coconut oil a staple in your diet.

Supporters claim coconut oil provides various health benefits.

Increasing good cholesterol

coconut oil on a table surrounded by a spoon and coconuts Share on Pinterest
The MCTs in coconut oil may help preserve insulin sensitivity.

There are two types of cholesterol: high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or good cholesterol, and low-density lipoprotein (LDL), or bad cholesterol. HDL appears to help reduce levels of LDL, and high levels of HDL may help boost cardiovascular health.

Some researchers have argued that medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a component in coconut oil, may help boost levels of good cholesterol. Participants took 1 tablespoon of coconut oil twice daily for 8 weeks.

However, results have varied. One small study in 2004 found the opposite. In research, dietary MCT increased bad cholesterol in 17 healthy young men. The scientists did not study any other indicators of heart health.

A 2016 study found no clear evidence that coconut oil either benefits or harms cholesterol levels.

However, findings published in 2018 suggested that extra virgin coconut oil's impact on cholesterol may be similar to that of olive oil. So far, the results remain inconclusive, and more studies are needed.

Learn more about how to reduce cholesterol.

Controlling blood sugar

Findings from a 2009 animal study suggested that MCTs, present in coconut oil, may help preserve insulin sensitivity. The review also listed the specific beneficial health effects of MCT oil, not coconut oil, in 29 studies.

However, other investigations have not found the same results. This study on mini pigs, however, looked at an excess calorie, high fat diet that also included hydrogenated fats and high fructose.

Which foods help manage blood sugar levels? Find out here.

Reducing stress

Virgin coconut oil may have antioxidant properties. In a rodent study, it appeared to reduce stress resulting from exercise and chronic cold. Researchers believe that virgin coconut oil could be useful in treating some kinds of depression.

Many plant based foods provide antioxidants. Learn more here.

Shiny hair

Some people apply coconut oil to their hair to increase shine and protect it from damage. It may penetrate the scalp better than mineral oils.

However, one study of people with similar hair types found no difference in hair condition between those who used coconut oil and those who did not.

Healthy skin

Applying a coconut extract to human skin may enhance its protective barrier functions and have an anti-inflammatory effect, says a 2017 study.

These findings could have implications for medicine but not for the diet.

Some foods may help boost skin health. Get some tips here.

Fighting candida

In an in vitro study, coconut oil was active against Candida albicans (C. albicans), suggesting it could be a treatment for candida.

This may be due to the extract's barrier functions and anti-inflammatory properties. However, this is not the same as consuming regular coconut oil since it is not fermented.

Can coconut oil fight candida? See this article for more details.

Preventing liver disease

In a 2017 study, rats with liver disease consumed a high glucose diet either with or without coconut oil. Those who consumed coconut oil had better measures of liver health after 4 weeks than those who did not.

This suggests that some elements in coconut oil may help protect the liver.

Reducing asthma symptoms

Inhaling coconut oil has helped reduce asthma symptoms in rabbits.

However, no studies have taken place in humans, so people should not inhale coconut oil.

Improving satiety

Some people have argued that coconut oil leaves people feeling fuller after eating, which means they will not eat so much.

However, one study compared MCT oil to coconut oil and confirmed that MCT oil exerts effects on satiety, not coconut oil.

Dental health

A 2017 review discusses the importance of oil pulling for dental health. Oil pulling is a traditional oral treatment. It involves swishing an oil around the oral cavity, in a similar way to the modern mouthwash.

Studies have found coconut oil pulling to protect against cavities, improve gingivitis, and influence the oral bacterial balance.

Weight loss

A study comparing two products found that coconut oil was less likely to trigger diabetes and weight gain in mice. Some have interpreted this as meaning coconut oil can help people lose weight.

One reason weight gain occurs is when people consume more calories than they use for energy.

All high fat foods and oils are high in calories. One tablespoon of coconut oil, weighing 13.6 grams (g) contains 121 calories, which is more than lard and butter and slightly less than sunflower oil.

Adding more high fat, calorie dense foods to a diet that contains carbohydrates and plenty of calories may not result in weight loss.

Which breakfast foods can help people lose weight? Find out here.

Cautions

Several investigations have looked into coconut oil and its possible benefits, but many of these are small, inconclusive, and animal- or lab-based.

Some human studies have confirmed several benefits, but other studies on people show conflicting results. More research is needed to confirm the effects of daily coconut oil use.

1 tbs of coconut oil contains:

  • 121 calories
  • 0 g of protein
  • 13.5 g of fat, of which 11.2 g is saturated
  • 0 milligrams (mg) of cholesterol

Coconut oil contains vitamin E, but no fiber and little to no other vitamins or minerals.

Coconut oil is almost 100% fat, most of which is saturated fat. However, the structure of fat in coconut oil differs from that of many animal products, which mainly consist of long-chain fatty acids.

Coconut oil is high in MCTs. These are harder for the body to convert into stored fat and easier to burn off than long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). Supporters of coconut oil attribute many of its benefits to the high MCT content.

However, researchers have questioned these perceived benefits from coconut oil itself because many of the reported benefits stem from MCT oil itself. Experts have called on people to treat coconut oil as they would any other saturated fat until there is enough evidence to prove otherwise.

Not all coconut oils are the same, and the impact on health may vary according to type.

Overall, the less processed a food is, the more likely it is to offer health benefits, and the same is probably true of coconut oil.

Extra virgin coconut oil comes from the fruit of fresh, mature coconuts. Processing does not involve high temperatures or added chemicals.

People who choose to use coconut oil should opt for the least processed type.

Learn more about which oils to choose and which to avoid.

The main argument against coconut oil is its high saturated fat content.

In June 2015, a Cochrane review found that, in some ways, saturated fats may be less harmful than previously believed. It did not suggest, however, that saturated fats were healthful, and the authors urged people to continue reducing their intake of saturated fat.

In June 2017, the American Heart Association (AHA) issued new advice against using saturated fats, including coconut oil, after looking at the findings of over 100 research studies.

Incorrect interpretation of a study?

In 2008, one study made people think that coconut oil might be healthful. In this investigation, 31 people consumed MCT oil or olive oil during a 16-week weight loss program.

The team found that the body processes MCT oil, such as coconut oil, differently from other oils. They concluded that MCT could have the same impact on CVD risk factors as olive oil.

Some people interpreted this to mean that if MCTs can have a positive effect on HDL and total cholesterol levels, coconut oil must be healthful.

However, the original study did not use coconut oil, but a special oil that was 100% MCT. The MCT content of coconut oil is around 14%. Butter is about 9.2% MCT.

A person would have to eat 150 g, or 10 tbs, of coconut oil each day to get the benefits. Consuming this much oil would not be healthful.

The Dietary Guidelines recommend limiting the intake of saturated fats to 10% or less of total calories. For those monitoring their cholesterol, the AHA recommend a maximum of 5-6%.

Most studies that show positive health benefits use MCT oil, not coconut oil. Studies supporting coconut oil have often been short term, small scale investigations involving animals rather than humans. The results have not been significant enough to warrant advising people to switch to coconut oil.

Research supporting a switch to unsaturated fatty acids has produced more reliable results.

Fats and oil provide essential nutrients, but people should always use them in moderation. If people use coconut oil, they should look for extra virgin coconut oil.

Here are some tips for buying, storing, and using coconut oil:

Check the label and avoid oils that contain partially hydrogenated coconut oil.

Store coconut oil in a cool, dark place. Like other saturated fats, it is solid when at room temperature and liquefies when heated.

Use coconut oil in baking for a light, sweet, "coconutty" flavor. It substitutes well for butter and shortening, and it is suitable for vegan recipes.

Coconut oil can add flavor and variety to the diet, but research seems unlikely to prove that it is a superfood.

Consumers should remember that, while changing from one oil to another may benefit health, adding more of any oil to the diet is unlikely to help them lose weight loss or improve their overall health.

People should always consume oils and fats in moderation, as part of a varied diet. They should also ensure that their activity levels are high enough to burn off the calories they consume.

Coconut oil is available for purchase online.

Q:

If coconut oil is not good for health, which oil should I use?

A:

While I recommend to limit all oils and choose whole food fats more often, healthy staple oils are olive and avocado. I do also keep coconut oil at home, but it is not my default oil for cooking.

Natalie Butler, RD, LD Answers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.