Coconut oil is widely promoted for weight loss. While the promises of coconut oil benefits seem great, the research is less clear. A few studies have looked at the weight loss benefits of coconut oil, and the results have been mixed. While some studies reported a decrease in participants’ body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference, others did not.
All studies were conducted in the short term. And it’s important to note that the best-designed studies have evaluated coconut oil as part of a calorie-restricted diet and exercise program. There is no evidence that coconut oil has any beneficial effect on weight loss if you simply add it to your diet.
Coconut oil comes from the dried fruit (nut) of the coconut palm. Although it is called an oil, it is essentially solid at room temperature, closer in texture and consistency to vegetable margarine. Coconut oil is almost 100% fat, with 82-92% saturated fat. One tablespoon of coconut oil contains 11 grams of saturated fat.
All fats are not the same
Fats can be characterized as either saturated or unsaturated. Saturated fats can be subdivided into short, medium and long chain fatty acids. These types of fats have different effects in the body. Unlike long chain fatty acids, medium chain fatty acids are absorbed directly into the blood. They don’t raise blood cholesterol as much as long-chain fatty acids, and they don’t seem to be stored in fatty tissue in the body as easily as long-chain fatty acids.
Coconut oil is interesting because it contains both medium and long chain fatty acids. The main component, however, is lauric acid. According to its structure and function, lauric acid falls in the middle, behaving in some ways as a medium-chain fatty acid and in another way as a long-chain fatty acid.
Many studies on medium chain fatty acids and their health benefits have been conducted with manufactured oils (derived in part from coconut oil or other vegetable oils) that do not contain lauric acid. . So it’s important not to draw conclusions about the benefits of coconut oil based on studies done with oils called medium-chain triglyceride oils.
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Researchers have also studied the effect of coconut oil on blood cholesterol levels. Coconut oil appears to raise low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) but not as much as foods that contain long-chain fatty acids, such as meat or whole dairy products. Some studies show that coconut oil may raise high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) but it’s unclear whether this has a beneficial effect on heart disease.
The body of evidence regarding dietary fats still supports the use of unsaturated oils, such as olive, canola, safflower, or sunflower oil, instead of saturated fats or coconut oil for management of cardiovascular risk factors.
Coconut oil also adds calories to your diet, about 120 calories per tablespoon of coconut oil. This is why it is unlikely to promote weight loss unless used with a calorie controlled diet and physical activity.