Coconut oil is one of those foods that gets a lot of attention and sparks a lot of debates. While some health experts call it a superfood with a unique combination of fatty acids that support wellness, others have gone so far as to label coconut oil “poison.” How can you tell who to believe?
Well, like so many heated debates, the reality is somewhere in the middle. It is true that populations that eat a lot of it tend have a lower incidence of heart disease than those that don’t. However, it is also true that coconut oil contains about 80% saturated fat, more than even red meat at 50% saturated fat. Too much saturated fat in the diet leads to cardiovascular issues, including heart disease.
It’s really the medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil that provide the health benefits. Once you understand how these behave in the body, you can decide if a daily coconut oil regimen is right for you. We’ll break down the good and the not-so-good things that can happen to your body if you eat coconut oil every day.
1. Increased Fat Burning
The medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) in coconut oil are credited with increasing the number of calories you can burn. One study found that ingesting 15-30 grams of MCTs each day bumps up energy expenditure (calorie burn) by 5%.
When you’re trying to shed pounds, any extra burn can help. And that’s the key to making the best of a diet high in MCTs – it has to be done in conjunction with a reduction in carbs and even better, an exercise regimen.
2. Protection Against Harmful Microorganisms
About 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil are lauric acids. When digested, lauric acid transforms into a compound called monolaurin. Research suggests that both lauric acid and monolaurin are able to kill off harmful pathogens, including viruses, fungi, and bacteria.
Candida albicans, the source of yeast infections, and Staphylococcus aureus, a potentially deadly pathogen, have both been shown in studies to be vulnerable to lauric acid and monolaurin.
3. Reduced Hunger & Cravings
One interesting feature of the fatty acids in coconut oil is that they can actually help you lose weight. MCTs are digested differently than other types of fats. They go directly to the liver and are used as ready energy or else turned into ketones.
Ketones are a type of acid made in the liver from fat to be used as energy. In conjunction with other efforts, eating more coconut oil could translate into weight loss. More than that, coconut oil may help reduce hunger. Studies show that people who eat the most MCTs in the morning eat fewer calories total throughout the day.
4. Improved HDL Cholesterol Level
Too much saturated fat is not healthy, but not all saturated fats are the same. The kind in coconut oil has been shown in some studies to increase the level of HDL, or “good” cholesterol in the body, while at the same time altering the LDL or “bad” cholesterol into a form that is less harmful.
Many experts therefore believe that coconut oil is actually good for heart health, despite being comprised of mostly saturated fat.
5. Fewer Seizures
The so-called “keto” ketogenic diet is very big right now, and relies on a high fat intake to generate ketones in the bloodstream. The keto diet will cause weight loss, but it is also being studied for the treatment of various disorders. One of those is epilepsy.
Research indicates that eating a high fat/low carb diet can reduce the incidence of seizures in epileptic children, even if multiple other medications failed to help. In fact, the fatty acids in coconut oil are frequently used to induce ketosis in epileptic patients of all ages.
6. Improved Skin and Dental Health
Coconut oil does not need to be eaten to be beneficial. It also has a host of cosmetic and topical uses. It can be massaged into skin just like lotion for a natural moisturizer. A few studies have also found that coconut oil can soothe the symptoms of eczema.
And though you can’t throw away your regular sunscreen, coconut oil actually blocks about 20% of the ultraviolet rays received from the sun. Some people even swish coconut oil around in their mouths to kill bacteria and improve breath.
7. On the Other Hand, Maybe the Opposite
The reason that there is so much debate over the health value of coconut oil is that many of the claims made about it come from one study. That study was done by a woman named Marie-Pierre St-Onge on the benefits of medium-chain triglycerides. Coconut oil does contain more MCTs than other sources of fat, but St-Onge’s study was done with a designer oil that contained 100% MCTs. Regular coconut oil only contains about 13-15%.
And while some studies have shown that coconut oil can have a beneficial effect on bad cholesterol levels, other studies have failed to discern a difference between the behavior of coconut oil and any other saturated fat. That has led the American Heart Association to issue a warning against consuming it.
In the end, your feelings about coconut oil should rely on an assessment of the evidence combined with personal experience. Due to the saturated fat content, it is best not to eat too much of it on a daily basis. The exception is if you are following a keto diet – coconut oil is approved and encouraged because of the MCT content. Remember, that means eating extremely low carb to compensate.
All experts agree that coconut oil is great for your skin. Even if you don’t eat it very often, rubbing it on your skin will eliminate dry itchiness and impart a smooth texture. You can also use it on the ends of your hair as a leave-in conditioner, or swish it around in your mouth as a natural mouthwash.