You may have noticed that over the last few years coconut oil has made an appearance on supermarket shelves, in health food shops and is sold by sports nutrition companies. It first arrived in our house 2 years ago, when my husband returned from rugby training with a tub of this magical stuff, with the instructions that we should use it to cook with.
At the time, I recall having a toddler and a new baby to look after, so it didn’t get much more than a raised eyebrow from me. Over the years London Irish rugby nutritionists have promoted a range of dubious products. I have learnt that, if it is not going to do any actual harm, then the route to a happy marriage is to just say “yes dear, that’s nice”, and wait for the next fad to come along.
But Coconut Oil doesn’t seem to be a passing fad. Is there any truth behind the health claims of weight loss, reduced heart disease, and improved athletic performance?
In a (coco) nut shell, maybe.
How is coconut oil different to other fats?
Coconut oil is very high in saturated fat, which is traditionally vilified for it’s artery clogging effects. However, 60% of the saturated fats in coconut oil are MCTs (medium chain triglycerides)
Why are MCTs different?:
- May have a neutral (or positive) effect on blood cholesterol
- Can be used by the body as a quick fuel source – MCTs are transported directly to the liver, where they are more likely to be burned as fuel, as opposed to other types of oils, which typically get stored as fat in the body.
- May raise metabolism slightly and make you feel more full up
- High concentration of lauric acid, which may have antiviral and antifungal properties.
What the studies show:
An overall consensus has not yet been reached regarding MCTs and weight loss.
There are studies showing that pharmaceutical grade 100% MCT oil may reduce body fat by increasing metabolic rate. Coconut oil is only about 60% MCT, so it’s not good science to say that coconut oil will have the same results. To get any small weight loss benefit, large amounts of the oil were used. Unfortunately, large amounts of coconut oil can cause stomach upsets and nausea, so in real life, it is unlikely that people could comply with this.
The research on MCT saturated fats is constantly evolving, years ago all saturated fats were thought to be bad for our hearts. However, we now know that there are different types of saturated fats that affect our bodies in different ways. Some studies suggest that MCT saturated fat might lower risk factors for heart disease by increasing levels of good cholesterol.
There is a study looking at Polynesians, which found that this population of islanders have a very high consumption of coconuts and a low incidence of cardiovascular disease. Hence, the claims that coconut oil is very beneficial for the heart. However, Polynesians have many other lifestyle factors which improve heart health (low intake of sugar and salt, good intake of fiber, plant sterols, and omega-3 fatty acids from fish). They also had an active lifestyle and used little tobacco.
The evidence for using MCTs as an ‘ergogenic’ supplement, to prolong endurance or improve performance, is pretty much non-existent. Because MCTs in coconut oil are metabolised by the liver to produce energy, it seems reasonable to assume that this is good for providing energy for exercise. However, in real-life research on athletes, there does not seem to be this positive effect. In fact, in a study of cyclists, after taking coconut oil their performance was actually reduced, probably due to the stomach cramps they experienced.
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “a few people have reported that coconut oil helped with Alzheimer’s, but there’s never been any clinical testing of coconut oil for Alzheimer’s, and there’s no scientific evidence that it helps.” The same is true of 100% MCT oil.
On balance, coconut oil can be included as part of your healthy diet. If you like the flavour that coconut oil provides in cooking, go ahead and use it—but in moderation. Use Virgin Coconut Oil, as it has not been chemically bleached and retains nutrients that are lost during the refining process.
There may be some truth in the weight loss claims, however, it’s worth stressing that coconut oil is very high in calories, so substitute it in your diet for other things. Unless you are aiming to gain weight, don’t simply add large amounts to your current intake.
As ever, ensure that you have a balanced, healthy diet with vegetables, whole grains, protein foods, essential fats etc. before depending on coconut oil to provide you with an answer for your health issues.
Here are a selection available in the UK and online:
Sainsbury’s – £6.00/300ml
Tesco – £6.00/260ml
Holland & Barrett – £16.55/500ml
MyProtein – £9.99/460g