Coconut oil is one of the foods that has gone through it all. It was demonized, then it was considered as a superfood. But as always, the real truth lies somewhere between.
- General information
- Medium-chain triglycerides
- Epileptic seizures
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Weight issues
- Thermic effects
Coconut oil is known due to its high saturated fat content that is slow to oxidize. This in return makes it more resistant to becoming rancid. But not all coconut oil is created equal. Modern demands have created partly and fully hydrogenated coconut oil which you can probably find in supermarkets.
The difference is the melting point.
Hydrogenated coconut oil has a higher melting point due to some chemical processes that are undertaken to make it more stable at higher room temperatures. The issue with this process, however, is the fact that some of the existing fatty acids get replaced with trans fatty acids. And that is one nutrient no one in the nutrition community likes.
But there are also “virgin” and “refined” coconut oil. The former is extracted from fresh mature coconuts without high temperatures and is considered to be unrefined. The latter, however, is made from dried coconut meat and often undergoes different chemical processes (bleaching, deodorizing).
The general breakdown of one tablespoon of coconut oil in terms of its composition would be:
- 117 calories
- 14 g total fat
- 12 g saturated fatty acids
- 0,8 g monounsaturated fatty acids
- 0,2 g polyunsaturated fatty acids
That means that 91% are saturated fatty acids, 6% are monounsaturated fatty acids, and 3% are polyunsaturated acids. It has trace amounts of iron, vitamin K, and vitamin E as well. And before I forget, the smoking point of coconut oil is 177°C (or 350 °F).
But why should you use it?
Let’s clear something up first. The majority of saturated fatty acids that are found in coconut oil are more precisely known as medium-chain trigylcerides (MCTs from now on). It’s not my intention to dive (too deep) into their chemical properties and all their metabolic aspects. I will, however, mention the important things you need to know to understand their helpful role.
Lauric acid represents more than 40% of saturated fatty acids found in coconut oil. However, lauric acid is not the only one, capric, caprylic, myristic, and palmitic acids are found in respectable amounts as well.
The fancy thing with MCT’s is their conversion – your liver processes them more easily into energy compared to other types of fatty acids. Therefore, they are used as energy in a faster and more efficient way; they get turned into ketone bodies. Because of this they do not take part in the biosynthesis and transportation of cholesterol.
The increased number of ketone bodies is helpful as it puts your body in the state of ketosis. Diets that mimic this state are called ketogenic diets – high amount of fats and low amount of carbs is their common denominator. These are extremely helpful when it comes to epileptic seizures in children.
One trial with 73 children split them into two groups. One received a ketogenic diet and the other did not. Around 40% of the ones who underwent a ketogenic diet, reduced their seizures by 50% or more compared to the control group. Moreover, in 7% of the children with the ketogenic diet, there was an amazing 90% reduction in epileptic seizures . Another study found similar results when MCTs were added to an actual ketogenic diet – by doing this, they were able to add more carbs into the eating pattern itself, while still preserving the state of ketosis. 
The state of ketosis is another way for our brain to get energy, the other being glucose. Usually our brain would use around 16% of the total oxygen that we consume, this oxygen gets used for the processing of glucose in order for it to act properly.
Alzheimer’s disease, a neurological disorder, is characterized, among others, by a neuronal hypometabolism. This means that there is a reduction in the metabolic rate – your brain spends less oxygen, energy, and glucose under such a circumstance. And as you might have guessed, hypometabolism is connected to a decline in cognitive functioning, since the brain spends less energy which, in return, reduces its processing ability. This is important because a decline in cognitive functioning is characteristic for Alzheimer’s as well . And this is the part where ketone bodies and coconut oil come in – they give the brain with energy via a different metabolic pathway. When researchers were testing whether patients would do better on different cognitive tests, after they were supplemented with MCTs, that was exactly what happened. Patients with Alzheimer’s disease performed better on tasks which involved working memory, among others. [3, 4, 5]
This shows us that adding coconut oil or other oils with MCTs to someone who suffers from a neuronal hypometabolism, could be positively beneficial for him, as It would improve his brain functioning, at least when it comes to performance on cognitive tasks.
One miniature study with six men noted that they consumed around 250 calories less, on average. They had to abide by a predesigned eating pattern. The only difference in the macronutrient composition between their eating patterns were the fats. As you might imagine, they consumed less calories if the fats were mostly MCTs . And as always, when we talk about “superfoods”, coconut oil has been found to cut weight as well. More specifically – it has been found to cut circumference in the belly area.
Two different studies were observing whether people would lose waist circumference simply due to coconut oil supplementation. In the first case, 40 women were supplemented with 30 ml (1 ounce) of coconut oil and saw their circumference shrink after some time. In the other, men lost 2,9 cm (1.1 inches) around their waist after they added coconut oil to their diet.
Lauric acid also raises HDL cholesterol and LDL cholesterol. However, the type of LDL cholesterol that is being raised, is one that has almost nothing to do with heart disease. 
Furthermore, if we take into account total and HDL cholesterol, lauric and stearic acid both become better than carbs in terms of favorable changes in the body. To double the first furthermore, lauric acid has a more favorable effect on total and HDL cholesterol than any other fatty acid, saturated or unsaturated. 
I’ve been mentioning the thermic effects of food before – how much energy do you need for the food you eat to be properly processed in your body. Well, according to one study, there was a 5% increase in bodily caloric expenditure when people were supplemented with 15-30 g of MCTs per day. This averaged to around 120 calories per day. I think we can imagine the favorable effects this would have in the long run if someone would decide to do this on a longer/larger scale. 
Due to the MCT content of coconut oil, you could expect:
- A reduction in the number of epileptic seizures
- Cognitive improvements if you’re suffering from hypometabolism
- Reduced waist circumference, granted that you do not increase your caloric intake
- Increased HDL cholesterol and increased number of large, buoyant LDL cholesterol molecules
- Increases in the thermic effects of your food
That was it.
Pretty impressive, huh? Did I miss something? I know it’s also beneficial for hair protection and moisturizing. But I decided to leave those out in this case, since they are not so important for nutrition.