Health claims regarding the consumption of coconut oil for weight loss tend to rely on studies of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oils.
Coconuts are a good source of naturally occurring MCTs, but coconut oil also contains several other types of fats.
In this article, we discuss whether coconut oil can help people lose weight and how it works. We also cover how to use coconut oil, and the risks and considerations of doing so.
Does it work?
Research into the health benefits of coconut oil is ongoing.
The MCTs present in coconut oil may aid weight loss and management. However, the current findings regarding the effects of coconut oil consumption on weight loss are controversial.
Many people claim that adding coconut oil to the diet can help promote weight loss. However, these claims tend to rely on findings from studies of MCTs and MCT oil. Although coconut oil contains MCTs, it is not the same as MCT oil.
Coconut oil contains small quantities of MCTS, such as capric acid and caprylic acid. However, around 50 percent of the fat content in coconut oil is lauric acid.
Some people consider lauric acid to be an MCT, but it actually falls somewhere between a long-chain triglyceride (LCT) and an MCT. Lauric acid contains 12 carbon atoms, but the MCTs present in MCT oil typically contain only six to 10 carbon atoms.
Why does it work?
The MCTs present in coconut oil may promote weight loss by enhancing the body's metabolism and increasing satiety.
We discuss these two potential modes of action below:
The MCTs in coconut oil may reduce fat accumulation in the body.
The body can rapidly metabolize MCTs due to their shorter carbon chains. Unlike LCTs, the body transports MCTs directly to the liver, bypassing the lymphatic system.
The liver rapidly converts MCTs into energy and ketones. Ketones, or ketone bodies, are the byproducts of fat metabolism. Some people believe that ketones are more efficient sources of energy than glucose, which the body normally uses as its main fuel source.
Since the body uses MCTs almost immediately, MCTs may produce a thermogenic effect in the body. In other words, MCTs may enhance the body's ability to burn fat.
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, NY, investigated the thermogenic effects of coconut oil compared with corn oil. They conducted a small study in 2017 that involved 15 adolescents. Its results suggest that coconut oil did not enhance thermogenesis.
The term satiety refers to the feeling of fullness that occurs after eating. Satiety plays an essential role in weight loss because it prevents people from eating again until they feel hungry. Eating high-fat foods may contribute to higher levels of satiety.
In a study from 2017, participants consumed a breakfast smoothie containing either MCT oil, coconut oil, or vegetable oil on 3 separate days. People in the MCT oil group had greater reductions in food intake and higher levels of satiety compared with those in the coconut and vegetable oil groups.
The researchers attributed the differences in satiety to the fact that coconut oil contains far fewer MCTs than pure MCT oil.
In a 2016 study, researchers compared the effects of coconut oil and sunflower oil on the appetites of 36 participants.
During the study, the scientists asked the participants to eat ice-cream containing different ratios of coconut oil and sunflower oil 45 minutes before eating their dinner.
Although those who ate ice-cream containing larger proportions of coconut oil ate less for dinner, they ended up consuming more calories from snacks later in the evening.
These findings suggest that simply eating coconut oil will not result in dramatic weight loss. However, this should not deter people from consuming coconut oil.
How to use
Coconut oil consumption works best as part of a balanced diet high in fish and fresh produce and low in processed foods.
People who consume coconut oil without making any other dietary changes may be less likely to lose weight.
Though consuming MCT oil may offer weight loss benefits, it has limited culinary applications. Due to its low smoke point, MCT oil cannot replace cooking fats, such as butter and olive oil.
People can safely cook with coconut oil. Despite its name, coconut oil behaves very similarly to butter. Both forms of fat contain high concentrations of saturated fat that keep them solid at room temperature.
Besides cooking and baking with coconut oil, people can add it to beverages such as coffee, tea, and smoothies. People who enjoy the taste of coconut oil can safely consume it raw.
Risks and considerations
Coconut oil is available in solid and liquid forms.
Coconut oil consists primarily of saturated fats, which can have adverse health effects, such as raising total cholesterol levels.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015–2020 suggest that saturated fats should account for less than 10 percent of a person's daily calorie intake.
Findings from a 2018 study suggest that consuming coconut oil can increase high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels without affecting levels of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol. Doctors often refer to HDL cholesterol as "good cholesterol" and LDL cholesterol as "bad cholesterol."
The study also found that consuming coconut oil did not affect the body weight or body mass index (BMI) of participants. People in the study consumed 50 grams of coconut oil per day, which far exceeds the recommended daily amount of fat.
Studies into the effects of coconut oil on weight have produced inconsistent and contradictory results. More research will help scientists draw further conclusions about the potential health benefits of consuming coconut oil.
Instead of adding coconut oil to a diet high in carbohydrates and processed foods, consider using coconut oil to replace calories from other cooking fats.
Generally, the most effective way for a person to lose weight is by getting regular physical activity, reducing daily calorie intake, and eating a balanced and healthful diet.
A range of coconut oil products is available to purchase online.