Health experts have long recommended that you avoid coconut oil because of its high saturated fat content. The molecular structure of the saturated fat in coconut oil differs from the kind found in animal products, though, making it a potential dietary boon rather than bust. When included as part of a low-calorie, portion-controlled diet and exercise routine, coconut oil may help your body burn fat rather than store it.
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About the Fat in Coconut Oil
In one tablespoon of coconut oil, you get 13 grams of fat, 11 grams of which are saturated. These saturated fats in coconut oil are known as medium-chain triglycerides, or MCTs, and differ from most saturated and unsaturated fats in the American diet, which contain longer-chain fats.
As the name suggests, MCT molecules are shorter in length, which makes them more easily absorbed and more efficiently processed by your body. Rather than being stored as body fat, MCTs can burned for immediate energy or be converted to ketones, which your brain can use as fuel in lieu of carbohydrates. MCTs can also help you save calories. Most fats contain 9 calories per gram, but MCTs offer just 8.3 calories per gram.
Weight Loss and Coconut Oil
Coconut oil also has promise as a food that supports weight loss efforts. In one study, published in a 2009 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers found that among 49 overweight men and women on a weight-loss program, those that consumed MCTs for 16 weeks lost more fat, particularly in the trunk, than those who consumed olive oil.
Coconut oil helps you feel full for longer, so you may eat fewer calories later, according to a review of research on MCTs published in the Journal of Nutrition in 2002. Both animal and human studies linked coconut oil to increased satiation, at least for several hours following consumption. This means that if you consume a teaspoon or two of coconut oil as part of your breakfast, you may end up eating fewer calories at lunch.
Fat Burning Qualities of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil may help alter the way fat is distributed on your body, too, reported the journal Lipids in 2009. A study involving 40 women -- all following low-calories diets and exercising -- found that those who consumed coconut oil lost more belly fat than those who had soybean oil.
Of note, the coconut oil didn't adversely affect the women's cholesterol levels. In fact, participants who consumed coconut oil experienced a rise in their good cholesterol, or HDL, while the soybean oil consumers had reduced HDL and increased bad cholesterol, or LDL.
A reason why coconut oil may be effective in helping with fat loss stems from its effects on metabolism. MCTs enhance energy expenditure and fat usage in obese women, when compared to long chain triglycerides, as shown in a study published in a 2003 issue of the International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders. The slight shift in the metabolism afforded by MCTs, such as coconut oil, didn't cause statistically significant changes in body composition, but they could still be helpful in staving off weight gain.
Including Coconut Oil in Your Diet
With 121 calories per tablespoon, coconut oil should be used in moderation if you're trying to lose weight. To see if it helps control your appetite and feel more energized, experiment with adding moderate amounts to your meal plan. For example, saute scrambled eggs in a teaspoon of coconut oil, add a teaspoon to a smoothie, or roast vegetables coated in a teaspoon or two. It will impart a mild coconut flavor to most recipes.
Coconut oil consumption is not a replacement for a balanced, low-calorie meal plan and regular exercise, however. Make sure you account for the calories from coconut oil. Too much of any food, regardless of its purported benefits, can cause weight gain.