Coconut oil has long been demonized for being high in saturated fats, and therefore inherently “unhealthy”. People in the integrative medicine community have long known how great coconut oil is recently its reputation is starting to catch up with the mainstream. (I gave it a “star” in “The 150 Healthiest Foods On Earth”!)
Now researchers are investigating the potential effects of coconut oil on weight loss.
Is there anything to this?
Let’s take a look.
The saturated fat found in coconut oil is a particular type of fat known as MCTs (medium-chain triglycerides). MCTs are metabolized in the body differently from other saturated fats. They’re rarely stored as body fat- the body prefers to use them for energy, almost like carbohydrates– though they don’t raise blood sugar the way carbs do.
One study in the International Journal of Obesity and Metabolic Disorders
found that the MCTs in coconut increased fat burning and calorie expenditure in obese men and also led to diminished fat storage. Another study in the same journal found that consumption of coconut oil fats over the course of 27 days increased both fat burning and calorie expenditure in women as well. However these studies used a very high percentage of calories as MCTs (30% of total calories consumed in the case of the latter study), an amount which is hardly practical for most people.
Nonetheless, there seems to be something to the idea that coconut oil, with its rich concentration of MCTs, may increase fat burning and calorie expenditure, especially if MCTs replace other fats in the diet such as safflower oil, soybean oil and other typical high omega-6 vegetable oils. (No one suggests that they should replace omega-3’s!) Researchers writing in the Journal of Nutrition called MCTS “potential agents in the prevention of obesity”, noting that they induce satiety (fullness) and may facilitate weight control, especially when used as a replacement for other oils.
Research on coconut oil goes back to the 1980’s. Scientists studied the Trobriand Islanders, who consume about 80 percent of their calories from coconut and coconut oil, and found vanishingly low levels of heart disease. More recent studies have investigated the population of Kitava, another area in the Trobriand Islands where coconut and coconut oil is consumed in large amounts, and noted the virtual absence of stroke and ischemic heart disease as well as the extreme leanness of the residents.
Coconut oil contains some very healthy fatty acids, among them the highly anti-microbal lauric acid (which has even been shown to be effective against against H. Pylori) and capric acid (which has very strong yeast-fighting properties). Moreover, a diet high in MCTs (known as a ketogenic diet) has long been known to be an effective treatment for childhood epilepsy, and is in use at many of the major hospitals in the US, including Johns Hopkins. Eric Kossoff, MD, assistant professor of neurology and pediatrics at Johns Hopkins told me that “most docs know it’s an effective therapy for epilepsy”.
While there aren’t a whole lot of studies testing coconut oil specifically for weight loss, the studies that have investigated its effects on metabolism seem to point to the conclusion that coconut oil can be a valuable addition to the diet of people trying to lose weight. How much of it you need is still unknown, though Sally Fallon of the Weston A. Price Foundation suggests one tablespoon with every meal. Coconut oil can certainly fit into a moderate calorie diet for weight loss. And it just may have the additional benefits of increased fat burning, calorie expenditure and reduced hunger.
Coconut oil has a nice taste, and can stand pretty high heat. I use it for sautéing vegetables, and even for scrambling eggs (sometimes I mix the coconut oil half and half with butter). Sure it’s as high in calories as any fat, but as part of a calorie balanced diet it definitely deserves a reputation as a “good fat”.
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