Coconut oil is widely marketed as a "superfood."
The unique combination of fatty acids in coconut oil could have positive effects on your health, which may include encouraging fat loss, improving heart health, and boosting brain function.
This article discusses the evidence behind 10 possible health benefits of coconut oil.
Coconut oil is high in certain saturated fats. These fats have different effects in the body compared with most other dietary fats.
The fatty acids in coconut oil can encourage the body to burn fat, and they provide quick energy to the body and brain. They also raise HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood, which may help to reduce heart disease risk (1).
When you eat MCTs, they tend to go straight to the liver. The body uses them as a quick source of energy or turns them into ketones.
Summary Coconut oil is high in fats called medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs, which the body metabolizes differently than most other fats. MCTs are responsible for many of the health benefits of coconut oil.
Coconut is an uncommon food in the Western world, with health-conscious people being the main consumers.
However, in some parts of the world, coconut — which is loaded with coconut oil — is a dietary staple that people have thrived on for generations.
A good example is the Tokelauans, a population who live in the South Pacific. According to a 1981 study, this population was getting over 60% of their calories from coconuts.
Researchers reported that this population had good health with very low rates of heart disease (3).
Another example of a population who ate a lot of coconut — along with tubers, fruit, and fish —and had little stroke or heart disease is the Kitavan population in Papua, New Guinea (4).
Summary Several populations around the world have thrived for generations eating a substantial amount of coconut, and studies show they have good heart health.
Obesity is one of the biggest health conditions affecting the Western world today.
While some people think obesity is just a matter of how many calories someone eats, the source of those calories is important, too. Different foods affect the body and hormones in different ways.
The MCTs in coconut oil can increase the number of calories the body burns compared to longer-chain fatty acids (
One study found that consuming 15–30 grams of MCTs per day increased 24-hour energy expenditure by 5% (
However, these studies didn’t specifically look at the effects of coconut oil. They examined the health effects of MCTs — excluding lauric acid — which make up only about 14% of coconut oil (
There’s currently no good evidence to say that eating coconut oil itself will increase the amount of energy a person uses up.
People should keep in mind that coconut oil is very high in calories and can easily lead to weight gain when they consume it in large amounts.
Summary Research says that MCTs can increase the number of calories burned over 24 hours by as much as 5%. However, research has not shown that coconut oil itself has the same effect.
Twelve-carbon lauric acid makes up about 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil (
For example, test tube studies show that these substances can help to kill the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections, and the yeast Candida albicans, a common source of yeast infections in humans (
There’s no evidence that coconut oil reduces the risk for the common cold or other internal infections.
Summary Using coconut oil as a mouthwash could help to prevent infections in the mouth, but researchers need more evidence before they can make strong claims.
One interesting feature of MCTs is that they can reduce hunger.
This may be related to the way the body metabolizes fats, because ketones can reduce a person’s appetite (
In one study, researchers fed varying amounts of MCTs and LCTs to 6 healthy men. The men who ate the most MCTs ate fewer calories per day (
Another study in 14 healthy men reported that those who ate the most MCTs at breakfast ate fewer calories at lunch (
These studies were small and had a very short timescale. If this effect were to persist over the long term, it could lead to reduced body weight over several years.
Although coconut oil is one of the richest natural sources of MCTs, there’s no evidence that coconut oil intake reduces appetite more than other types of oils.
In fact, one study has reported that coconut oil is less satiating than MCT oil (
Summary MCTs can significantly reduce appetite, which may lead to reduced body weight over the long term.
Researchers are currently studying the ketogenic diet (very low in carbs, very high in fats) to treat various disorders.
The best known therapeutic use of this diet is treating drug-resistant epilepsy in children (16).
The diet dramatically reduces the rate of seizures in children with epilepsy, even those who haven't had success with multiple different types of drugs. Researchers aren’t sure why.
Reducing carbohydrate intake and increasing fat intake leads to greatly increased concentrations of ketones in the blood.
Because the MCTs in coconut oil get transported to the liver and turned into ketones, healthcare professionals may use a modified keto diet that includes MCTs and a more generous carbohydrate allowance to induce ketosis and help treat epilepsy (
Summary The MCTs in coconut oil can increase blood concentration of ketone bodies, which can help reduce seizures in children with epilepsy.
Coconut oil contains natural saturated fats that increase HDL (good) cholesterol in the body. They may also help turn LDL (bad) cholesterol into a less harmful form.
By increasing HDL, many experts believe that coconut oil could be good for heart health compared to many other fats.
In one study in 40 women, coconut oil reduced total and LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL compared to soybean oil (
Summary A few studies have shown that coconut oil can raise blood levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, which is linked to improved metabolic health and a lower risk of heart disease.
Coconut oil has many uses that have nothing to do with eating it.
Many people are using it for cosmetic purposes to improve the health and appearance of their skin and hair.
Oil pulling, which involves swishing coconut oil around the mouth like mouthwash, can kill some of the harmful bacteria in the mouth. This may improve dental health and reduce bad breath, though more research is needed (
Summary People can apply coconut oil to their skin, hair, and teeth. Studies suggest it works as a skin moisturizer, protects against skin damage, and improves oral health.
In people with Alzheimer's disease, the brain’s ability to use glucose for energy is reduced.
Researchers have suggested that ketones can provide an alternative energy source for these malfunctioning brain cells to reduce symptoms of Alzheimer's disease (28).
The authors of a 2006 study reported that consuming MCTs improved brain function in people with milder forms of Alzheimer's disease (
However, research is still early, and there’s no evidence to suggest that coconut oil itself helps with Alzheimer’s disease.
Summary Early studies suggest that MCTs can increase blood levels of ketones, supplying energy for the brain cells of people with Alzheimer's disease and relieving symptoms.
Given that some of the fatty acids in coconut oil can reduce appetite and increase fat burning, evidence suggests that it can also help you to lose weight.
Abdominal fat is the most harmful type and has links with many chronic diseases.
Waist circumference is an easy, accurate marker for the amount of fat in the abdominal cavity.
In a study of 40 women with abdominal obesity, those who took 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of coconut oil per day had a significant reduction in both BMI and waist circumference over 12 weeks (
Another study in 20 males with obesity noted a reduction in waist circumference of 1.1 inches (2.86 cm) after 4 weeks of taking 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of coconut oil per day (
Coconut oil is still high in calories so people should use it sparingly. Replacing some of your other cooking fats with coconut oil could have a small weight loss benefit, but the evidence is inconsistent overall (
If you want to buy coconut oil, there’s an excellent selection online with thousands of customer reviews. It’s also available in most health food stores.
In order to get the potential health benefits outlined in the article, make sure to choose organic, virgin coconut oil rather than refined versions.