Coconut oil has been mentioned as a cure for cancer, an alternative to sunscreen, and everything in between.
Coconut oil is a plant oil which is extracted from the meat of mature coconuts and is produced by the Philippines, Indonesia, India, and Viet Nam (1).
Demand for coconut oil has increased 500% in the last decade, partly due to the increased popularity of cooking ethnic dishes with the correct ingredients, but mostly due to the supposed health benefits.
According to the USDA Nutrient Database, one tablespoon of coconut oil contains 121 calories, 13g of fat (11g saturated), zero carbohydrates, zero fiber and zero protein. It is high in saturated fats and high in medium-chain triglycerides, also known as MCTs (2).
Medium-chain triglycerides make up 60-70% of the fatty acids in coconut oil (which themselves makeup 92% of the oil) (3).
A lot of the health benefits that are associated with coconut oil are attributed to the high levels of MCTs it contains. There are two main forms of coconut oil, refined and virgin. The virgin is seen as the superior oil as it does not involve bleaching, deodorizing, or any chemical processing. Both forms of coconut oil should have similar amounts of MCT content so though refined forms can tolerate a higher heat level.
Coconut oil is made up of six main fatty acids, and a small amount of others. Medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) are used to make medium chain triglycerides. Coconut oil contains two medium-chain fatty acids: caprylic acid (7%) and lauric acid (48%). Lauric acid is also found in breastmilk. The remaining 45% of fatty acids are not MCTs.
One thing that you should be aware of, while coconut oil contains a high concentration of MCTs, it is not an MCT oil. MCT oil is man-made using fractionation to remove solid fat and extract and isolate MCTs from coconut or palm kernel oil (4). This means that MCT oil will have a much higher percentage of MCTs than regular coconut oil would have. MCT oil is more rapidly absorbed and metabolized by the liver than long-chain fats which may impart additional health advantages.
1Coconut oil may help to improve cognitive performance and help combat Alzheimer’s disease. In a 2012 study on the effects of fish oil on cognition coconut oil was used as the control. The study found that the coconut oil had a small yet significant effect on processing speed (how long it takes a person to complete a mental task) (5).
A study on Alzheimer’s patients found that administering 40ml of extra virgin coconut oil per day led to improvements in cognitive performance – particularly in women and type II diabetics. They hypothesized that this was due to the body using MCTs as “a direct source of cellular energy” (6).
Another study, in 2014, found that coconut oil could help reduce neurodegeneration, again potentially demonstrating its effectiveness for treating Alzheimer’s patients (7).
An article by Larissa DeDea in the Journal of the American Academy of Physician Assistants looked into whether coconut oil was a potential replacement for caprylidene (a medical drug used to increase blood ketone levels) (8).
Because coconut oil is mostly made up of MCTs it is often used in ketogenic diets to raise blood ketone levels, making it a good choice. Larissa decided that it was an acceptable replacement, provided that patients’ cholesterol was checked regularly.
2Coconut oil may help improve lipid profiles and reduce cholesterol. A common mistake made by people is to believe that any food that is high in saturated fats is automatically going to increase your cholesterol. While this is often the case, plant-based saturated fats can often have the opposite effect.
A study in 2004 by Nevin & Rajamohan found that feeding virgin coconut oil to rats for 45 days led to reduced total cholesterol, reduced triglycerides, reduced low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, and increased high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol. Virgin coconut oil also helped prevent LDL oxidation (9).
Another study, this time on humans (premenopausal women in the Philippines) was published in 2011 in the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition (10).
It found that consuming coconut oil was associated with an improvement in HDL cholesterol levels. Increasing HDL cholesterol can help remove bad cholesterol (LDL), reduce total cholesterol and reduce your risk of heart conditions.
3Coconut oil can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and works as a cardio protective. A 2014 study looked at the effect of heated virgin coconut oil on hypertensive rats (11).
The rats were given heated palm oil for 16 weeks, with one group also being given a supplement of virgin coconut oil. At the end of the 16 weeks all of the rats had increased systolic blood pressure except for the group that had the virgin coconut oil. This study found the coconut oil had a cardio protective effect.
An article in Postgraduate Medicine (2014) looked at the cardio protective effects of virgin coconut oil. The researchers concluded that there wasn’t enough evidence at the present time, but that the outlook seemed good. They hypothesized that virgin coconut oil could be as effective for cardio protection as virgin olive oil is in the Mediterranean diet (12).
4Coconut oil may possess a hepatoprotective effect. There aren’t many studies on the effect of coconut oil on your liver. A study in 2011 in Evidence-based Complimentary and Alternative Medicine found that virgin coconut oil reduced liver damage (caused by paracetamol) in rats. The study concluded that virgin coconut oil “possessed hepatoprotective effect that requires further in-depth study” (13).
Another study on rats, this time in the Journal of Basic & Clinical Physiology and Pharmacology also found that virgin coconut oil (or more specifically one of the active components of the oil) had a protective effect on the liver (14).
5Coconut oil may reduce skin dryness and increase skin moisture. You don’t have to consume coconut oil as part of your diet to get all of its benefits. You can also see improvements in your skin from applying it topically. A study in 2008 found that applying coconut oil to skin suffering from dermatitis helped to rehydrate it and reduce bacteria (a common cause of dermatitis) (15).
A similar study in2004 found that coconut oil was as effective as a moisturizer at rehydrating dry skin (16).
6Coconut oil may slightly increase metabolism for short durations. A study on premenopausal women in 1999 found that ingesting coconut oil led to a small increase in their metabolism after a meal (enhanced postprandial energy expenditure). This effect only lasted for two weeks and after that time there was no difference in energy expenditure (17).
7Coconut oil may have slight anti-inflammatory properties. A 2011 study found that coconut oil had an anti-inflammatory effect, but that the effect was not strong (18).
This is due to the high concentration of lauric acid that coconut oil contains.
These were the benefits that are directly tied to coconut oil. The studies referenced all specifically used coconut oil. The following benefits are attributed to MCTs which are present in coconut oil, so while the studies may not use coconut oil, you can still attribute the benefits to it.
8MCTs may help to increase weight loss and fat oxidation. A 2007 study looked at the effect of medium-chain triglycerides on weight loss and insulin sensitivity (19).
The study involved 40 moderately overweight type 2 diabetics and lasted 90 days.
One group was given medium-chain triglycerides while the other group was given long-chain triglycerides (from corn oil). The MCT group noticed reduced body weight, reduced waist circumference, and a decrease in total cholesterol. The LCT group noticed no significant changes. Another study in 2000 found that MCTs helped increase fat oxidation in healthy women (20).
The study concluded that MCTs can have a role in weight management.
In 2001 a study by Krotkiewski was published in the International Journal of Obesity & Related Metabolic Disorders (21).
The study’s aim was to test the effects of MCTs during a low calorie diet. It was performed on obese women who were split into three groups. The groups were: MCT enriched, LCT enriched, and low fat/high carb. All groups had the same calorie targets.
The study found that the MCT group had significantly higher fat loss, a larger reduction in body weight, and that their free fat mass (muscle) was better spared during the diet. This was attributed to a larger increase in ketone bodies as the body entered ketosis.
The researchers concluded that further research was needed on the “protein-sparing and appetite-suppressing effects of MCT supplementation”. Further studies have as-yet failed to find a significant appetite-suppressing effect of MCT supplementation.
9MCT supplementation (or coconut oil) could be more effective during a ketogenic diet. As we saw in the previous study, the researchers attributed weight loss to the raised ketone bodies in the blood. Raising ketone blood level is the goal of anyone participating in a ketogenic diet. If you’re looking at speeding up the process of entering ketosis, adding coconut oil to your diet could be very beneficial.
As you can see there are quite a few benefits attributed to coconut oil and medium-chain triglycerides in general. More studies on humans are needed, but the research to date appears promising.
Ketogenic diet practitioners all rave about coconut oil and its ability to help you enter ketosis easily, plus the many other supposed benefits. It appears that if you were to use ketosis for short term fat loss, the brief increase in metabolism that coconut oil displayed in the 1999 study might be beneficial.
1Coconut oil could potentially cause cancer. According to examine.com, coconut oil that is continually reheated like in the case of deep-frying of foods in oils can cause the formation of polyaromatic hydrocarbons – carcinogens that are often associated with meat and fried foods (22).
A study in 2010 found that dietary consumption of repeatedly heated coconut oil led to reduced liver weight, precancerous lesions and worsened liver laboratory markers in rats (23).
2Coconut oil may lead to weight gain and increased cholesterol. Considering the potential weight loss benefits of adding coconut oil to your diet, this side effect may seem surprising. But while a small amount of coconut oil may be effective at controlling or reducing body weight, it is still an oil. A tablespoon of coconut oil contains 121 calories. Using it often and using large serving sizes may lead to overconsumption of total calories.
This is the big problem with coconut oil outside of the lab environment. Whenever it demonstrates weight loss effects it is most often part of a calorie-controlled diet. The subjects are consuming a set amount of dietary fats and calories per day. This allows the scientists to control whether they gain weight, maintain weight, or lose weight.
If you’re just at home pouring coconut oil into your coffee or cooking with a couple of tablespoons for two to three meals per day, you could easily be increasing your calorie intake by 500-700 calories per day. Unchecked this can lead to weight gain. Increased weight and fat accumulation can lead to metabolic disorders such as diabetes, cardiovascular health problems, and many other issues.
Many health organizations have recommended avoiding coconut oil because of its high calorie density. A journal article by Lockyer & Stanner titled “Coconut oil – a nutty idea?” pointed out that unlike virgin olive oil, coconut oil does not have a large body of evidence for its health claims (possibly due to a lack of coconut oil consumption in Europe and America until very recently) (24).
They also point out that coconut oil may increase cholesterol, even if it does improve the HDL to LDL ratio, making it a food to avoid in their opinion. They point to a study in 1989 where coconut oil was replaced by corn oil and milk powder as fat sources (25).
The study found that after the dietary change the subjects’ blood cholesterol levels reduced dramatically.
Increased saturated fat is also a concern for those with variants of the genes that code for saturated fat metabolism, known as APOE4. Individuals with this gene variants are recommended to maintain more strict control of saturated fat intake, regardless of source and focus more heavily on a plant-heavy Mediterranean-style diet.
As you can see, there is a lot of debate about the effect of coconut oil on cholesterol and health. Supporters will point to its ability to improve the ratio of good to bad cholesterol, while detractors will say that total cholesterol is raised overall. The potential for someone to overindulge in coconut oil confuses things even more.
Studies most often use dosages of coconut or MCT oil ranging from 1 tablespoon to 2.5 tablespoons per day. According to other sources such as examine.com the recommended dosage for coconut oil is more conservative, between 7.7 and 15g per day, which is equivalent to 5-10mg of medium chain triglycerides (26).
This is about one tablespoon, and around 121 calories per day. This is the level where it appears to be effective with minimal side effects. Excess intake could in fact lead to the weight gain and cholesterol issues discussed in the side effects section.
Can coconut oil go bad? It can spoil, but it has an extremely long shelf life if kept in a cool, dark room or cabinet. If it has developed any mold, dark spots, a strange odor, or bad taste, throw it away.
What are the benefits of coconut oil capsules? Coconut oil is high in natural saturated fats. Saturated fats not only increase the healthy cholesterol (known as HDL cholesterol) in your body, but may also help convert sticky, small-particle LDL “bad” cholesterol into larger size LDL particles that are less sticky and do not aggregate in arteries.
Can coconut oil clear acne? Some people apply it directly to the skin as a facial cleanser or moisturizer. This may be beneficial at acne treatment, but it’s not recommended for people who have very oily skin. Some dermatologists advise against coconut oil as a regular moisturizer on the face. There have been cases where repeated use of coconut oil has resulted in clogged pores and increased serum production due to its rating of a 4 on the 0 to 5 comedogenicity scale (measures pore-blocking effects). Be sure to cleanse well if using coconut oil.
Can coconut oil be used as a lubricant? Because coconut oil is antibacterial and antifungal, there’s a chance that it could disrupt your vagina’s natural pH balance and cause a yeast infection if you’re prone to them. It’s not safe for use with condoms since it’s an oil based product.
How does coconut oil help you lose weight? It contains a unique combination of fatty acids with powerful effects on metabolism. Several studies show that just by adding coconut oil to your diet, you can lose fat, especially the “dangerous” fat in the abdominal cavity.
How long is coconut oil good for after opening? Two years is the most common shelf-life, assuming proper storage instructions are followed (sealed and stored in a cool, dark cabinet).
Can coconut oil remove acne scars? Research is inconclusive about coconut oil’s effect on existing scar tissue, however it may prevent future scarring due to its anti-inflammatory properties.
Coconut oil is a commonly consumed fat source in many Asian countries, and it is slowly becoming more and more popular in Western countries. This acceptance is due to its purported health benefits. Coconut oil has been embraced by paleo dieters and those on a ketogenic diet due to its superior ability to raise ketone levels. But the health benefits have been overstated in some cases and do not require high intake.
The idea that bigger equals better has led to many people consuming large quantities of coconut oil each day, much more than is recommended. This can actually lead to weight gain, rather than the weight loss that most people hope for. Instead of reducing adipose tissue, reducing LDL cholesterol and improving blood lipids, overconsumption of coconut oil may actually worsen the situation.
Adding coconut oil to your diet may impart significant benefits, just keep your intake in check. Make sure that you are sticking to around one tablespoon per day, though intake can increase for those looking to gain weight. Remember to not reheat coconut oil after the first cook and emphasize whole food forms of fats like nuts, seeds, avocado, olives, dairy and yes, coconut itself (not just the oil) for a variety of health benefits.