Coconut Oil - The Facts Behind The Fad
If you live in America or have access to the internet, chances are slim that you haven’t heard anything about the new miracle food – coconut oil. It’s literally everywhere. In smoothies and coffee, pancakes and pasta dishes, shampoo and face scrubs. What is this stuff?
Coconut oil is the edible fat extracted from coconuts. Even though it’s called ‘oil’ you have probably noticed that you almost always see it as a solid. Coconuts are tropical fruits and so obviously grow at pretty warm temperatures - those that are higher than our normal room temperature around 70’F. So in a naturally hot tropical environment, coconut oil is liquid in the coconut meat, which is necessary for coconuts to do all their coconut stuff inside (cell membranes must be liquid to function). This is why it’s solid at our room temperature, but then becomes liquid when you heat it. Sounds kinda like butter, right? (hint hint)
This magical tropical oil is super flavorful and delicious for anyone who enjoys the flavor of coconut. Coconut and it’s many products have been used for centuries by tropical dwelling people for tons of dishes like curries and stir fries. It’s boom across the world in the past few years sees coconut oil being put in just about everything as everyone wants to harness the miracle health properties it holds inside.
The internet (and let’s not even get into Instagram) will tell you that coconut oil provides these benefits and more:
Helps you lose weight
Improves athletic performance
Strengthens immune system
Helps build muscle
Improves brain function and prevents Alzheimer’s
Promotes heart health
Prevents and treats cancer
Well, I guess we found the cure for cancer!
Pretty much all of the purported health benefits of coconut oil are attributed to it’s high medium chain triglycerides, or MCT, content. MCT is a saturated fat. When we usually think of saturated fat, we are thinking of things like butter and fat in steak. These types of saturated fat are long chain triglycerides (LCT), and act a bit differently in the body than the shorter length, yet still saturated MCT.
The big deal about MCT is that this type of fat is processed in a much quicker manner than other LCT (both saturated and unsaturated) we eat. MCT goes directly to the liver to be turned into energy, skipping the whole process where other fats can be stored in the body as fat. So what does science tell us about MCT and the health benefits coconuts are supposed to provide? Here’s a look at some of the claims:
Naturally aids in weight loss - The idea here is that MCT are metabolized more quickly than longer-chain triglycerides and therefore are used right away as energy and not stored as fat. Theoretically, this would seem to prevent weight gain or cause weight loss. Studies do show that MCT may be able to decrease body weight, but maybe by about 1 pound. (1) There are actually quite a few studies in both humans and mice that show that MCT consumption can improve satiety and consequently food intake. (2)
Boosts metabolism - It is believed by some that MCT can increase energy expenditure, or how many calories your body burns. There have been studies that report some sort of energy expenditure increasing mechanism after the consumption of MCT. (3) However, it seems as though if there is an effect of this nature, it fades over time and offers no real energy burning benefit. (4)
Improves athletic performance - Research looking at how MCT may influence ability to perform moderate and high intensity exercise found that ingesting a small amount of MCT before the activity may improve performance. (5) The theory behind this is that because MCT goes straight to the liver and gets turned into quick energy, it spares carbohydrates from being used, therefore allowing the athlete to tap into this carb energy later on. However, there is conflicting evidence (like always, right?) that reports MCT before and during physical activity was actually detrimental to performance and additionally resulted in gastrointestinal upset. (6)
So, MCT may have its merits, but also may have its negatives depending on what aspect of health you are examining.
Still wondering if coconut oil will help you achieve better body competition or boost your performance? Let’s put any inquiry to rest. It’s gonna get a little sciency, but bear with me, we’re in this together. Here’s the deal:
When you look at the type of fats in coconut oil, you see that it is about 50% MCT. (First of all, that means that only half of the fat in coconut oil would contain the purported magical MCT powers) Medium chain triglycerides are those that have fatty acids of 6 to 10 or 12 carbons in length. Long chain triglycerides have fatty acids 12 or 14 to 20 carbons in length. As you can see there is a type of fatty acid that seems to fall on the line of each category. It’s the one with 12 carbon atoms, and it’s name is lauric acid.
Coconuts are one of the richest natural sources of lauric acid on earth, with almost all of the MCT in coconuts coming from this fatty acid. Here’s where it gets interesting. Lauric acid is actually considered by many as a LCT and not a true MCT. When you look at many MCT studies, they are actually using MCT with 8 or 10 carbons in length as they have the characteristic properties of MCT, and excluding lauric acid. Why?
Remember how I mentioned that LCT takes the long absorption route (with the option of being stored as fat), and MCT does not? Well it turns out that the majority of lauric acid actually takes the same long absorption pathway that LCT do. Other MCT take the short absorption pathway (through the portal vein) at a rate of about 95%, while about 75% of lauric acid gets absorbed the other way through the long (lymphatic system) pathway. (7) (8) (9)
Meaning, the body treats it as a long chain fat and not a medium chain fat.
So, all those claims about how great the MCT in coconut oil is for you- not really valid. Because when you really look at what makes up that delicious oil, it’s not really MCT, it’s long chain saturated fat. Yes, like butter.
But, isn’t butter back? There has been a lot of discussion about this topic the past few years. However, regardless of a study here or there with conflicting information, the overwhelming body of research and evidence still holds true the following about increasing saturated fat and butter intake:
Increases heart disease risk through increasing ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol
Can increase inflammation and insulin resistance
Study after study continues to show that vs. saturated fats, unsaturated fats (think nuts, seeds, fish, and vegetable oils) are the winner when it comes to being better for your health. Unsaturated fats can lower ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol, raise ‘good’ HDL cholesterol, and even decrease inflammation and oxidative stress. It is therefore recommended across all dietary patterns to limit saturated fat intake to less than 10% of total calories. (For a 2000 calorie diet, that would mean max 22g saturated fat per day) Although some people claim coconut oil must be good for you citing tropical peoples eating it for centuries, the truth is that they were not consuming straight coconut oil as we do, but actually the coconut flesh or squeezed coconut cream. Not to mention their overall diet was very plant-heavy and unprocessed. (10)
What should this all mean for you? Coconut oil may taste ridiculously awesome, but it’s health impacts maybe aren’t on the same level. It doesn’t really even contain the type of fat that coco-pushers point to as the magic ingredient. The type of fat it does contain is much more comparable to other saturated fats like butter. If you are trying to eat for good health or performance (which perhaps you are if you are still reading, hi!), and you do want to enjoy some coconut oil in your life, have it in moderate amounts (like you would butter). For example, if coconut oil was the only saturated fat you were to eat in your daily 2000 calorie diet, a little less than 2 tablespoons (28g) of coconut oil would be the most you could include within healthy dietary guidelines.
Like all foods, it’s not that coconut oil is inherently bad for you- the amount you eat in the context of your overall diet is what should be assessed. (Although, the lauric acid in coconut oil is known to strongly increase LDL cholesterol, just saying) There is almost always room for a little of the not-so-good-for-you foods that we just crave sometimes. Maybe coconut oil is in that category for you, or maybe not. Either way, you aren’t missing out on any miraculous health benefits from this tropical oil.