While once shunned because of its saturated fat content (more on that below), coconut oil is now lauded as a “miracle” food; some may even go so far as to call it a “cure” for [insert health concern here]. While there is no “magic bullet” that some would lead you to believe, there may be something to the “coconut craze.”1 Combined with an overall healthy diet, there are a number of health benefits that may be beneficial by consuming more virgin coconut oil.
Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCTs)
Coconut oil is principally made up of saturated fat (about 92%), with as much as 70% of that being a special type of fat called medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs), or medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), making coconut oil unique among dietary fats. You see, unlike long-chain fatty acids (LCFA), which are the more common fats found in foods, MCTs are easily burned for energy and are far less likely to be stored as fat.2
In the scientific community, MCTs are viewed as “functional” fats that provide a host of health benefits, as they have been shown to lower body weight, improve markers of metabolic health, reduce belly fat (i.e., visceral fat), and improve insulin sensitivity.3 In other words, all fats are not created equally, and coconut oil is a very rich source of this unique, health-promoting saturated fat.
Research suggests that the MCTs found in coconut oil have a significant metabolism-boosting effect. In one study, researchers found that consuming MCTs increased metabolism more than eating LCFAs from other foods. As a matter of fact, the participants who consumed MCTs lost significantly more weight and burned more fat than the group consuming LCTs.4
Researchers have also found that consuming just 1 – 2 tablespoons daily of MCTs can elevate the metabolism by as much as 5%, which may mean burning an additional 150 calories or more per day.5 In addition to short-term feeding studies showing an acute rise in calorie burning with MCTs, research has shown that this elevation in metabolism continues even over prolonged periods of time.6 What’s particularly interesting is that this increase in energy expenditure appears to be met by a subsequent increase in fat burning.
The MCTs in coconut oil may also suppress appetite, which may be related to their conversion in the liver to ketone bodies. In one crossover trial, researchers assessed whether increasing the amount of MCTs in the diet had an effect on food intake in free-living conditions. They found that when men ate the most MCTs, they consumed, on average, over 250 fewer calories per day.7
In a crossover trial published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers from France found that when they added MCTs to a standardized breakfast, men ate significantly fewer calories at lunch compared to when they ate the same breakfast with LCFAs.8 Numerous other studies have shown that the addition of MCTs promotes satiety, resulting in an involuntary reduction in food intake.9,10
With potential beneficial impacts on both aspects of the energy balance equation (i.e., more calories burned, fewer calories consumed), it may be little surprise that there’s evidence that coconut oil may promote weight loss.
In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial published in the journal Lipids, a group of Brazilian researchers found that women who consumed two tablespoons of coconut oil per day for 12 weeks while following a reduced-calorie diet and including daily exercise lost significantly more belly fat compared to the placebo group (i.e., diet and exercise alone).11 In another study, researchers from Malaysia found that men who added 2 tablespoons of coconut oil to their normal diets for 4 weeks significantly reduced belly fat.12
Furthermore, numerous randomized controlled trials have shown that supplementing the diet with MCTs (like those found in coconut oil) leads to greater weight loss and reductions in belly fat than other fats (e.g., LCFAs, including olive oil, soybean oil, rapeseed oil, and corn oil), effects likely due to MCTs’ ability to increase metabolic rate (i.e., calorie expenditure) and fat burning.9,10,13–15
Brain Health & Focus
As mentioned, MCTs are easily absorbed and metabolized by the liver, where they are readily converted to ketone bodies, which serve as an important energy source for the brain. In fact, ketones may be beneficial to folks who experience cognitive decline and memory impairment.16 In one study, researchers found that supplementation with
MCTs led to an immediate improvement in cognitive function and memory in folks with mild cognitive impairment.17
Bottom Line: Don’t be afraid of Fat. You can start with Coconut Oil and other MCTs combined with your results-based personal training program at Aspire. Bangkok’s leading Personal Training Experts.
- Kormos W. On call. The coconut craze. I have seen many products promoting the health benefits of coconut oil or coconut water. Is there any proof of those benefits? Harv Men’s Health Watch. 2014;18(11):2.
- St-Onge M-P. Dietary fats, teas, dairy, and nuts: potential functional foods for weight control? Am J Clin Nutr. 2005;81(1):7-15.
- Nagao K, Yanagita T. Medium-chain fatty acids: Functional lipids for the prevention and treatment of the metabolic syndrome. Pharmacol Res. 2010;61(3):208-212. doi:10.1016/j.phrs.2009.11.007.
- St-Onge M-P, Jones PJH. A greater rise in fat oxidation with medium-chain triglyceride consumption relative to long-chain triglyceride is associated with lower initial body weight and greater loss of subcutaneous adipose tissue. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord J Int Assoc Study Obes. 2003;27(12):1565-1571. doi:10.1038/ sj.ijo.0802467.
- Dulloo AG, Fathi M, Mensi N, Girardier L. Twenty-four-hour energy expenditure and urinary catecholamines of humans consuming low-to-moderate amounts of medium-chain triglycerides: a dose-response study in a human respiratory chamber. Eur J Clin Nutr. 1996;50(3):152-158.
- St-Onge M-P, Bourque C, Jones PJH, Ross R, Parsons WE. Medium- versus long-chain triglycerides for 27 days increases fat oxidation and energy expenditure without resulting in changes in body composition in overweight women. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord J Int Assoc Study Obes. 2003;27(1):95-102. doi:10.1038/ sj.ijo.0802169.
- Stubbs RJ, Harbron CG. Covert manipulation of the ratio of medium- to long-chain triglycerides in is energetically dense diets: effect on food intake in ad libitum feeding men. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord J Int Assoc Study Obes. 1996;20(5):435-444.
- Van Wymelbeke V, Himaya A, Louis-Sylvestre J, Fantino M. Influence of medium-chain and long-chain triacylglycerols on the control of food intake in men. Am J Clin Nutr. 1998;68(2):226-234.
- Han JR, Deng B, Sun J, et al. Effects of dietary medium-chain triglyceride on weight loss and insulin sensitivity in a group of moderately overweight free-living type 2 diabetic Chinese subjects. Metabolism. 2007;56(7):985-991. doi:10.1016/j. metabol.2007.03.005.
- St-Onge M-P, Ross R, Parsons WD, Jones PJH. Medium-chain triglycerides increase energy expenditure and decrease adiposity in overweight men. Obes Res. 2003;11(3):395-402. doi:10.1038/oby.2003.53.
- Assunção ML, Ferreira HS, dos Santos AF, Cabral CR, Florêncio TMMT. Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity. Lipids. 2009;44(7):593-601. doi:10.1007/s11745- 009-3306-6.
- Liau KM, Lee YY, Chen CK, Rasool AHG. An open-label pilot study to assess the efficacy and safety of virgin coconut oil in reducing visceral adiposity. ISRN Pharmacol. 2011;2011:949686. doi:10.5402/2011/949686.
- St-Onge M-P, Bosarge A. Weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than olive oil. Am J Clin Nutr. 2008;87(3):621-626.
- Nosaka N, Maki H, Suzuki Y, et al. Effects of margarine containing medium-chain triacylglycerols on body fat reduction in humans. J Atheroscler Thromb. 2003;10(5):290-298.
- Kasai M, Nosaka N, Maki H, et al. Effect of dietary medium- and long-chain triacylglycerols (MLCT) on the accumulation of body fat in healthy humans. Asia Pac J Clin Nutr. 2003;12(2):151-160.
- Fernando WM a. DB, Martins IJ, Goozee KG, Brennan CS, Jayasena V, Martins RN. The role of dietary coconut for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer’s disease: potential mechanisms of action. Br J Nutr. 2015;114(1):1-14. doi:10.1017/ S0007114515001452.
- Reger MA, Henderson ST, Hale C, et al. Effects of beta-hydroxybutyrate on cognition in memory-impaired adults. Neurobiol Aging. 2004;25(3):311-314. doi:10.1016/S0197-4580(03)00087-3.