Does a Daily Dose of Coconut Oil Reduce Body Fat?

How Coconut Oil May Help You Lean Up

Coconut oil
Coconut oil contains medium-chain fatty acids. Alita Ong / Getty Images

Coconut oil has become one of the fastest growing health foods. Chronic research continues to reveal positive medicinal findings indicating coconut oil could very well be a super food. Other studies have examined coconut oil and indicated it can help with immune function, neurological disorders, and diabetes just to name a few.

Researchers have also concluded coconut oil can help with fat loss, especially around the abdominal area.

These findings have definitely helped the marketing of coconut oil as the miracle fat to lose fat. The popularity of this statement has stimulated many people to use coconut oil as a supplement to reduce body fat. On the flipside, there is research skeptical of the claims providing opposing views, so coconut oil appears to remain a controversial subject for health and fitness and leaves us wondering if a daily dose really helps reduce body fat. Is it all hype?

History of Coconut Oil

Coconuts (Cocos nucifera) come from the coconut tree or palm originating in the tropics. They’re also considered a drupe because they consist of three layers: the exocarp (outer layer), mesocarp (husk of the fruit), and endocarp (fruit). The coconut fruit has been consumed and used medicinally over many generations. Although a common fruit to the islands of Malaysia and Philippines, coconut oil is now widespread and used worldwide.

Is it a Healthy Fat?

Coconut oil contains a large amount of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs). When the oil is extracted from fresh coconut meat (virgin coconut oil), the amount of MCFAs has the potential to increase to 85 percent. Medium chain fatty acids are lipids metabolized easily and not stored in adipose tissue like long-chain fatty acids (LCFAs).

Because MCFAs have a shorter chemical chain, they can be absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract and transported to the liver. Once the fatty acids reach the liver they are metabolized into energy. This process allows less opportunity for MCFAs to create fat stores.

Because coconut oil is significantly different than other fats in our diet, it can be considered a healthy fat. The medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) are what set it apart from other oils or fats. MCFAs are digested differently, which has led coconut oil to be used as alternative treatment for numerous medical conditions.

Does it Reduce Body Fat?

Can I take a tablespoon of coconut oil daily to help reduce body fat? This has become a popular question among active adults, athletes, and individuals wanting to lose weight. Many people have already begun supplementing with coconut oil for this health benefit.

It appears the way medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) are digested helps boost metabolism and increase energy. Increasing metabolism boosts our ability to burn fat.

Because of this, coconut oil has become a staple in sports nutrition and has been shown to improve athletic performance. Many sports bars and drinks are now using coconut oil as a marketed ingredient.

Coconut oil seems to have a beneficial effect on our metabolism and body fat. This has stimulated research to examine if coconut oil could be used for weight management. In order to really know if taking a daily dose of coconut oil works to reduce fat, we need to look at the evidence.

Research and Findings

Coconut oil has received rave reviews for numerous health benefits including body fat reduction.  We have seen it marketed as the healthy fat for optimal fitness. Celebrities are using it and nutritionists are recommending coconut oil as part of a healthy diet. This is all well and good but without the evidence to back up the claims, it’s really just hearsay. Online sources like the U.S. National Institutes of Health PubMed are a great place to look up reliable research articles and findings.

Chronic research has examined the health benefits of coconut oil. 

Study 1
An article published in the National Institutes of Health indicates coconut oil promotes the reduction of abdominal obesity. A randomized double-blind study was conducted on 40 women aged 20 to 40 years. The participants were split into two groups receiving either two tablespoons of soybean or coconut oil daily over a 12-week period. The women were also instructed to follow a low-calorie diet (1000-1200cal/day) and walk for 50 minutes per day. Clinical data was collected one week prior and one week after the trial period.

The coconut oil group showed an increase in high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol compared to a decrease for the women taking soybean oil. HDL cholesterol is the good stuff we want at higher levels in our body. The participants consuming coconut oil also decreased in low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol while the soybean group increased. LDL cholesterol is the bad stuff we want at lower levels in our body.

Both groups experienced a drop in body mass index (BMI) but only the group taking coconut oil reduced in waist size. Total cholesterol increased in the group taking soybean oil and decreased for the women supplementing with coconut oil. Contrary to other research, these findings indicate coconut oil doesn’t elevate cholesterol and promotes body fat reduction in the abdominal area.

Study 2
The Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics published an analysis that included numerous trials on medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) and body composition. With such mixed reviews surrounding MCTs like coconut oil, they felt it necessary to assess the studies. They compared thirteen separate trials examining MCTs and long-chain triglycerides (LCTs). The goal was to determine if MCTs did increase metabolism and enhance fat burning in the body.

The combined findings did indicate medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) to improve body composition compared to the longer chained fats. Research participants taking MCFAs like coconut oil decreased in weight, waist circumference, and body fat percentage.

Although it was reported many studies lacked sufficient information and detected commercial bias, their overall observation remained positive. The analysis conclusions indicated MCFAs have the potential to significantly reduce body weight and composition. They recommend further large, well-designed studies to confirm the effectiveness of MCFAs and the appropriate dose for successful body fat reduction.

Study 3
A pilot study was conducted in Malaysia on twenty obese but otherwise healthy participants. The purpose of the research was to determine if virgin coconut oil reduces abdominal fat. The study volunteers were between the ages of 20 to 51 years old.

Each participant underwent clinical examination and measurements prior to and after the trial period. They were given two tablespoons (30ml) of virgin coconut oil split into three doses ½ hour prior to eating a structured diet. The research was conducted over a six-week cycle.

According to research findings, virgin coconut oil consumption for all volunteers showed a decrease in abdominal fat especially for male participants. Reductions in body fat percentage and body mass index (BMI) were also reported. Virgin coconut oil rich in medium-chain fatty acids (MCFAs) appears to be an inexpensive and safe supplement for body fat reduction.

Limitations to the study included the research being of short duration and lacking a control group. Also noted was the pilot study not including a long-term follow-up for the participants. Further research is recommended to confirm the health benefits of virgin coconut oil.

Study 4
Another study compared medium-chain triacylglycerol (MCT) oil to olive oil, primarily long chain fatty acids. The purpose of the research was to determine if MCT oil decreased body fat and weight better than olive oil.

The research included a total of 49 overweight but otherwise healthy men and women aged between 19 to 50 years. Prior to the study, each person completed a medical evaluation which included measurements, full-body DXA scans, CT scans, and X-rays. The tests were repeated upon conclusion of the trial period of 16 weeks.

Male participants were instructed to eat a structured diet consisting of 1800 calories daily and the women consumed 1500 calories. Part of the diet was a test muffin baked with either 10 grams of medium-chain triacylglycerol (MCT) oil or olive oil. The volunteers were split into random groups and unaware of the type of oil in the muffin they consumed daily.

Those who consumed the muffins with MCT oil showed a greater loss in body weight compared to the olive oil group. Although both groups decreased in total body fat percentage and trunk fat mass, the results for the MCT group were significant.

Research conclusions indicate MCT oil as part of a weight-loss program leads to greater body fat reduction. Also noted was improved fat oxidation (burning) with MCT oil supplementation.

So, Should I Take it Daily?

Coconut oil, especially virgin coconut oil, is rich in medium-chain fatty acids that as part of a healthy, calorie-balanced diet can reduce body fat. It is a healthier fat that can be included in our daily nutrition. Before you start eating it every day, do note that even healthier fats are high in calories. Coconut oil contains 14 grams of fat per one tablespoon serving, and 120 calories. According to research, fat intake of 20-30 percent of our total daily calories is said to be optimal for health and fitness. This should be taken into consideration prior to reaching for that spoonful of coconut oil.

Sources:
Assunção ML et al., abstract, Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity, National Institutes of Health, 2009

Karen Mumme et al., abstract, 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, 2015

Kai Ming Liau et al., An Open-Label Pilot Study to Assess the Efficacy and Safety of Virgin Coconut Oil in Reducing Visceral Adiposity, ISRN Pharmacology, 2011

Marie-Pierre St-Onge et al., Weight-loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than does olive oil, American Society for Clinical Nutrition, 2008

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