Scientific Evidence of Health Benefits of Coconut Oil

By Zakiyah Soltanian Fard Jahromi

There have been many claims about the health benefits of coconut oil. Some claims may be true, but more evidence is needed. In this essay some of the claims about coconut oil, whether they are backed by scientific evidence and the limitations of the claims will be investigated.

Consuming Coconut Oil Burns Body Fat And Reduces Hunger

Coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides (MCT). The chain length of a MCT is 6-12 carbon atoms. MCTs may increase the number of calories you burn in comparison to long chain triglycerides (LCT). A meta-analysis of randomised control trials showed that replacing LCTs with MCTs leads to lipid oxidation and increased energy expenditure (Mumme, 2015). A second meta-analysis of randomised control trials published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition also showed replacing LCTs with MCTs could lead to weight loss (Bueno, 2015). However, information was not of the highest quality and commercial bias was detected in both studies. Both studies also cautioned that there were further studies needed to make a reliable conclusion.

Additionally, there is no indication of whether or not coconut oil increases the number of calories you burn other than it being high in MCT content. Furthermore, coconut oil is calorie dense, meaning you can still gain calories (your overall net calories could be increased) even if your calorie burning is increased.

Claims have also been made about how coconut oil reduces hunger. Scientific evidence has shown that MCTs do reduce hunger, but research has shown that coconut oil does not have the same effect. In fact, coconut oil alleviates hunger less than other MCT oils (Kinsella, 2017). Alternatively, there are healthier ways to reduce hunger levels than consuming coconut oils, such as adding more protein and fibre to your regular diet (Sharafi, 2018) or getting the right amount of sleep that your body needs (Lin, 2020).

Claims have also been made that coconut oil is a quick source of energy due to its high MCT content. The body metabolises MCTs differently to long chain triglycerides. MCTs provide a rapid source of energy that the body absorbs and uses faster than other types of saturated fatty acids and therefore provides a quick source of energy. Therefore, coconut oil could provide a quick source of energy. However, since coconut oil is not usually consumed in isolation, there might be some questions on how coconut oil could be used as an energy source.

Coconut Oil Reduces Seizures

Keto diets have been shown to help reduce how often a seizure could occur. Keto diets are diets which are low in carbohydrates and high in fats. The reason for this is because people on keto diets do not have much available glucose to fuel brain cells. Reducing your carbohydrate intake reduces the glucose in your blood, and increases your fat intake for energy usage. Increase in blood fat concentrations leads to an increase of ketones. Research has shown low blood glucose where the brain relies on ketones for energy help reduce seizure frequency (D’Andrea Meira, 2019).

However, more research is still needed to see if and how keto diets or modified keto diets could assist with seizure reduction. Additionally, the harm of a keto diet, such as unfavourable effects on dietary intake, could outweigh the benefits which are usually temporary (Crosby, 2021).

Coconut Oil for Topical Usage

Claims have also been made that coconut oil boosts skin health. Research has shown that coconut oil does help boost skin health and function by moisturising skin and preventing water loss (Evangelista, 2014). Therefore, it can be argued that topical usage of coconut oil is beneficial to skin health. Furthermore, research has shown that coconut oil has antimicrobial effects, because coconut oil contains lauric acid which has antimicrobial properties (Dufour, 2007). Lauric acid prevents some types of bacteria from multiplying and it destroys some types of bacteria altogether which could also be helpful for promoting skin hygiene.

Since coconut oil contains lauric acid, it may also improve oral health. People use coconut oil for oral health through a process called oil pulling. Oil pulling is the process of swishing oil around the inside of your mouth like mouthwash (Peedikayil, 2016). Even though coconut oil may improve oral health it is not the most effective or cost-effective way to improve oral health. Toothpaste containing fluoride is a good source to improve oral health and it is more cost-effective. Another disadvantage of coconut oil used to improve oral health, is that during the process of oil pulling oil stays in your mouth which would add additional calories to your diet.

Studies have also shown that coconut oil can be used to protect your hair by making it more flexible and increasing its strength. This happens because coconut oil penetrates the hair strands which reduces the amount of water absorbed in to your hair and prevents protein loss (Rele, 2003). Coconut oil is also used to reduce the breakage of hair strands.

Coconut Oil Reduces Symptoms of Alzheimer’s Disease

Claims have been made that coconut oil reduces symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. One of the issues of Alzeihmer’s disease is that glucose cannot reach the brain to be used as energy. Since coconut oil contains medium chain triglycerides, which increases blood levels of ketones (an alternative energy source for the body), it may help with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease by providing the brain with an energy source (Avgerinos, 2020). However, there is not enough research to support the claim that MCTs, as an alternative source of energy, can be beneficial for alleviating symptoms for Alzheimer’s.

Coconut Oil Contains Antioxidant Properties

Claims have been made that coconut oil is a source of antioxidants. Some antioxidants in coconut oil are:

  • flavonoids
  • polyphenols
  • tocopherols
  • phytosterols

Although coconut oil has antioxidants, there are other sources with the same antioxidants and less calories that could prevent excess weight gain. Strawberries contain polyphenols and tea contains polyphenols and flavonoids. Legumes are rich in phytosterols and nuts and other vegetable oils contain tocopherols.

Why do so Many People Believe the Health Claims of Coconut Oil?

People believe the health claims about coconut oil for different reasons. Sometimes  some people might look for a quick and easy solution to a complicated health issue. Hence, they want to believe that coconut oil is a panacea for a variety of health matters, such as weight loss. Furthermore, there is much propaganda in support of health claims about coconut oil being true. Many people might not do in depth research about a health claim and be victims of such propaganda.

Who is Making Unfounded Health Claims and Why?

Most people who make unfounded health claims about products have financial interests in those products. Some might be influenced by the propaganda and therefore spread the propaganda because it makes them feel better (lose weight not by fixing diet and exercise but through consuming coconut oil). There might also be people who like the idea that they can eat excess without gaining excess fat simply by consuming coconut oil.

If You Have a Job Related to Food or Have a Job in a Field Related to Food, What Do You Believe Your Role is With Regards to These Types of Claims?

If someone has a job related to food or a job in a field related to food, their role with regards to these types of claims should be to find reliable information to know whether or not they should encourage the claim being made about the food products. However, not everyone involved in the food industry might find the health of their customers as important as making profit. Therefore, there is a need for legislation and guidelines to ensure people’s health takes precedence over profit.

What Do You Feel is the Role of Scientists? And What is the Role of the Food Industry?

The role of scientists in regards to claims about food or food products is to carefully study and test the different effects the food or product in question has on a person’s body, before making any health claims.

The role of the food industry should be to not encourage false claims being made about food products. Additionally, the food industry and people’s health would be better off if the business practices of the food industry aligned with people’s health and well-being.

References:

Avgerinos, K. I., Egan, J. M., Mattson, M. P., & Kapogiannis, D. (2020). Medium Chain Triglycerides induce mild ketosis and may improve cognition in Alzheimer’s disease. A systematic review and meta-analysis of human studies. Ageing research reviews, 58, 101001. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.arr.2019.101001

Bueno, N. B., de Melo, I. V., Florêncio, T. T., & Sawaya, A. L. (2015). Dietary medium-chain triacylglycerols versus long-chain triacylglycerols for body composition in adults: systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 34(2), 175–183. https://doi.org/10.1080/07315724.2013.879844

Crosby, L., Davis, B., Joshi, S., Jardine, M., Paul, J., Neola, M., & Barnard, N. D. (2021). Ketogenic Diets and Chronic Disease: Weighing the Benefits Against the Risks. Frontiers in nutrition, 8, 702802. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2021.702802

D’Andrea Meira, I., Romão, T. T., Pires do Prado, H. J., Krüger, L. T., Pires, M. E. P., & da Conceição, P. O. (2019). Ketogenic Diet and Epilepsy: What We Know So Far. Frontiers in neuroscience, 13, 5. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2019.00005

Dufour, M., Manson, J. M., Bremer, P. J., Dufour, J. P., Cook, G. M., & Simmonds, R. S. (2007). Characterization of monolaurin resistance in Enterococcus faecalis. Applied and environmental microbiology, 73(17), 5507–5515. https://doi.org/10.1128/AEM.01013-07

Evangelista, M. T., Abad-Casintahan, F., & Lopez-Villafuerte, L. (2014). The effect of topical virgin coconut oil on SCORAD index, transepidermal water loss, and skin capacitance in mild to moderate pediatric atopic dermatitis: a randomized, double-blind, clinical trial. International journal of dermatology, 53(1), 100–108. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijd.12339

Kinsella, R., Maher, T., & Clegg, M. E. (2017). Coconut oil has less satiating properties than medium chain triglyceride oil. Physiology & behavior, 179, 422–426. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.07.007

Lin, J., Jiang, Y., Wang, G., Meng, M., Zhu, Q., Mei, H., Liu, S., & Jiang, F. (2020). Associations of short sleep duration with appetite-regulating hormones and adipokines: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 21(11), e13051. https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.13051

Mumme, K., & Stonehouse, W. (2015). Effects of medium-chain triglycerides on weight loss and body composition: a meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 115(2), 249–263. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jand.2014.10.022

Peedikayil, F. C., Remy, V., John, S., Chandru, T. P., Sreenivasan, P., & Bijapur, G. A. (2016). Comparison of antibacterial efficacy of coconut oil and chlorhexidine on Streptococcus mutans: An in vivo study. Journal of International Society of Preventive & Community Dentistry, 6(5), 447–452. https://doi.org/10.4103/2231-0762.192934

Rele, A. S., & Mohile, R. B. (2003). Effect of mineral oil, sunflower oil, and coconut oil on prevention of hair damage. Journal of cosmetic science, 54(2), 175–192.
Sharafi, M., Alamdari, N., Wilson, M., Leidy, H. J., & Glynn, E. L. (2018). Effect of a High-Protein, High-Fiber Beverage Preload on Subjective Appetite Ratings and Subsequent Ad Libitum Energy Intake in Overweight Men and Women: A Randomized, Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled, Crossover Study. Current developments in nutrition, 2(6), nzy022. https://doi.org/10.1093/cdn/nzy022

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