A close friend recently asked for my take on coconut oil. It seems like coconuts have been all the rage lately, particularly coconut water, coconut milk, and coconut oil. But what’s so special about coconuts? Is this just a bunch of baseless hype? Or is coconut oil a worthy addition to your grocery list?
Let’s start with a quick break-down.
Coconut oil contains 117 calories per tablespoon, slightly less than other oils (olive and canola oils contain 120 and 124 calories per tablespoon, respectively). A more significant difference, however, is the saturated fat content. Coconut oil is one of the few plant-based oils that is high in saturated fat, containing nearly 12 grams or 60% of your recommended daily allotment. (Saturated fat has been linked to heart disease as well as certain cancers.) It’s worth noting, though, that because coconut oil is derived from a plant (and not an animal) it is cholesterol-free. In addition, the predominant saturated fatty acid found in coconut oil, lauric acid, may indeed behave differently than other forms of saturated fat. For example, some studies have shown improvements in dyslipidemia (unfavorable cholesterol levels) and abdominal obesity when coconut oil is included as part of a weight loss plan. As always, more research is needed.
So if coconut oil is roughly on par with other oils as far as calories are concerned, but sky-high in saturated fat, why is it such a hot item at health food stores?
Coconut oil also happens to be high in medium-chain triglycerides (or MCT). While I won’t bore you with the chemical differences, here are a few key points:
- MCT are easily digested and efficiently absorbed, providing a quick source of energy—particularly for the malnourished or those with digestive problems.
- Some preliminary evidence suggests that MCT may boost overall caloric expenditure by increasing metabolic rate as well as digestive thermogenesis (the calories required for digestion) when substituted in the diet for other types of fat. In other words, MCT may help you burn more calories.
- MCT may also promote satiety, allowing you to feel satisfied with fewer calories.
- By making it easier to create a calorie deficit, MCT should have the potential to enhance weight loss. This, however, has not been rigorously tested in humans. (In fact, some studies have shown little or no significant difference in weight loss when coconut oil is used as part of a weight loss plan.)
- MCT are not likely to be stored as adipose tissue (read: fat) in the body as they tend to behave more like a carbohydrate.
As with so many nutrition topics, the waters can get pretty murky, pretty quick. Our health is a culmination of so many factors; some we can control, others we cannot. Most take years to play out. If you’re interested in trying coconut oil, remember that calories are still calories and you’ve got to measure your portions. And, to avoid any potential stomach or intestinal upset, be sure to spread your intake out throughout the day. Finally, remember that while there is promising research with regard to the health benefits of coconut oil, the bulk of research concludes that diets high in saturated fat increase risk for heart disease and other chronic illnesses.
Though this is by no means an exhaustive review of coconut oil, I hope it was helpful and informative!