You’ll see coconut oil touted as a weight loss aid and as an energy supplement for boosting athletic performance despite a lack of research to back such claims, notes Dr. Ray Sahelian of Los Angeles. Some of these claims are based on the way that the medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil are processed by your liver and elsewhere in your body. Always consult a health care provider before adding a new food or supplement to your regimen, particularly in the case of a substance like coconut oil, with so much ongoing research yet to be concluded.
About 65 percent of coconut oil is made up of medium-chain triglycerides, according to “Lippincott’s Illustrated Q&A Review of Biochemistry,” by Michael A Lieberman and Rick Ricer. The medium-chain triglycerides in coconut oil are brought directly to your liver, bypassing the need for the action of bile salts and pancreatic lipase for absorption, these researchers assert.
Advocates of coconut oil say the fact that medium-chain triglycerides go quickly to your liver is a benefit. When coconut oil’s medium-chain triglycerides are brought to your liver, they are converted into energy that is immediately available, says Siegfried Gursche, author of the book, “Coconut Oil.” That means these fats are used for energy rather than being stored in your body like long-chain triglycerides are, Gursche says. A.A. Papamandjaris, lead author of a study published in the journal Life Sciences, also makes the claim that your body is able to metabolize medium-chain fatty acids faster than long-chain fatty acids, which he notes must be incorporated into chylomicrons before going to your liver. Chylomicrons are fat globules made up of fat and protein that must be transported through your lymph system. This difference is what leads to the theory that coconut oil may be useful as a weight loss aid.
Detractors of coconut oil use say the speed at which the medium-chain lipids, or fats, arrive in the liver is a disadvantage. Consuming large amounts of coconut oil isn’t a good idea because of the fact that it goes straight to your liver, assert Cathy Wong and Sabra Ricci, authors of “The Inside Out Diet,” because consuming a fat that is brought quickly to your liver can place stress on this organ. The authors advise you to avoid coconut oil and other medium-chain triglycerides if you have liver disease or diabetes.
Medium-chain fatty acids such as those found in coconut oil have potential value as part of the treatment for cirrhosis of the liver, says J. R. Malagelada, lead author for a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Dietary fatty acids get deposited in the liver lipids of alcoholics. Substituting medium-chain fatty acids for long-chain fatty acids can alter the fat composition in the livers of people with cirrhosis to shorter-chain acids that are more easily metabolized. Previous studies done on animals found that swapping to medium-chain fatty acids led to a decrease of total liver lipid levels, Malagelada notes.
Gursche asserts that antimicrobial properties in coconut oil help cleanse your liver of harmful microorganisms and that high-quality coconut oil protects your liver from free radical damage. There is evidence that coconut oil has antimicrobial properties, according to D.O. Ogbolu, lead author of a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, though Ogbolu’s study focused on the oil’s effect against candida, not its impact on the liver. Another study, which examined fat metabolism in the liver in relation to free radical reactions, found that coconut oil actually was less likely to lead to free radical damage than fish oil, says lead author M. D'Aquino. This study, published in Free Radical Research Communications, examined the effect on rat livers, so more research is needed to see if the same effect occurs in humans.
While the way coconut oil is metabolized in your liver may have benefits, and coconut oil can be a healthy addition to your diet, consuming too much of it may make your daily calorie count too high, notes Sahelian. Switching to coconut oil and consuming less of other healthy oils like fish and flaxseed oils also is unlikely to provide an overall health benefit, Sahelian continues. Focusing on a “miracle food” is likely to create a diet that is out of balance, the doctor says. Your better bet is to consume small amounts of a variety of oils that have health benefits. Other oils with proven health benefits include extra virgin olive oil and borage oil, Sahelian concludes.
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Effect of medium-chain triglycerides on liver fatty acid composition in alcoholics with or without cirrhosis; J. R. Malagelada et al.; 1973
- PubMed: Free Radical Research Communications: Effect of fish oil and coconut oil on antioxidant defence system and lipid peroxidation in rat liver; M. D'Aquino et al; 1991
- PubMed: Life Sciences: Medium chain fatty acid metabolism and energy expenditure: obesity treatment implications; A.A. Papamandjaris et al; 1998
- PubMed: Journal of Medicinal Food: In vitro antimicrobial properties of coconut oil on Candida species in Ibadan, Nigeria; D.O. Ogbolu et al.; 2007
- Lippincott’s Illustrated Q&A Review of Biochemistry; Michael A Lieberman and Rick Ricer; 2009
- Journal of Biological Chemistry: Purification and characterization of short-chain, medium-chain, and long-chain acyl-CoA dehydrogenases from rat liver mitochondria; Y. Ikeda et al.; 1985