Coconut oil: health or hype?

Coconut oil has gained attention with claims that it helps with weight loss, physical and cognitive performance, heart health, good cholesterol, and inflammation. But does it live up to all the hype?

So far, the evidence to support the use of coconut oil for any of the touted health benefits is insufficient. Due to its high saturated fat content, coconut oil should be used in moderation.

Coconut oil is a plant-based oil made up of both unsaturated and saturated fats. Most plants and plant-based oils contain mostly unsaturated fats, but coconut oil contains nearly 90% saturated fats (which are associated with some health risks). This is unusual because saturated fats are most commonly found in animal products such as meat and dairy.

One type of saturated fat in coconut oil is called “medium-chain triglycerides” (MCTs). Your body digests and absorbs MCTs more quickly than other saturated fats. This allows them to be used as an energy source, so they’re less likely to be stored as fat.

What does the research say about coconut oil and MCTs?

  • Weight management. MCT oils might help you feel fuller longer, which could help you eat less and lose weight. However, more research is needed to validate weight-loss claims associated specifically with coconut oil. 
  • Athletic performance. MCT oils might help maintain stored glycogen (a form of glucose, a sugar your body uses for energy), which could improve your endurance or time to fatigue. However, the research to support the benefits of using MCTs or coconut oil to enhance athletic performance is weak.
  • Heart health. Coconut oil increases the amount of “good” cholesterol in your blood, which suggests it might improve cardiovascular health. However, as good cholesterol increases, the “bad” cholesterols also increase. Research so far suggests that coconut oil has no beneficial impact on any other cardiovascular risk factors, such as blood sugar, weight, or inflammation.  

What do the current guidelines say about saturated fat?

Saturated fats (such as those in coconut oil) can increase your risk of heart disease, so the 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggest you limit them to no more than 10% of your calories per day. However, the American Heart Association recommends limiting saturated fat to no more than 6%. This is especially important for anyone who has a pre-existing heart condition or is at increased risk for heart disease.

Coconut oil can also be purchased in or as a dietary supplement. For more information, see the Operation Supplement Safety (OPSS) A-Z quick facts about coconut oil.

The bottom line: Despite the marketing hype touting the use of coconut oil for various health claims, more research is needed to document its benefits.

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