For some time now we’ve been hit with the idea that coconut products (water and oil, in particular) are “miracle foods”, capable of speeding up your metabolism, “melting” away fat and providing a whole host of other miraculous benefits.
Now we love new wellness findings as much as the next Healthy Henry but our skepticism is running a little too hot on this one. There’s likely some validity in what’s being proposed but before we can believe these claims exactly as they’re laid out, we’re putting our noses to the ground to sniff out the truth.
The Phenomenon of “Melted Fat”
Throughout our search, we found that the few small studies that have been performed actually do suggest that a diet containing coconut oil may in fact contribute to lower insulin levels, reduced liver glycogen, lower abdominal fat and an increase in glucose utilization.
Because the fatty acids contained in coconut oil (which are called medium-chain triacylglycerols, or MCTs) are shorter and more water-soluble than those found in other oils, your body is able to break them down in such a way as to provide a faster and more direct route to the liver where they’re burned for fuel. This leaves less chance of them being deposited as abdominal fat stores and voila, the “fat loss” miracle is born.
The “Increased Metabolism”
The thermic effect of food (or TEF) is, put simply, the amount of energy used in digestion. Along with your resting metabolic rate and the effect of exercise, the TEF is one of the components that make up your metabolism.
While the actual value of the TEF will vary based on different components (ie. proteins generate a higher TEF than carbohydrates or fats), a commonly used estimate of the thermic effect of food is approximately 10 percent your caloric intake, meaning that if you eat a 500 calorie meal, it will take 50 calories to digest that food (which is 10 percent of the meal). This is where it gets interesting.
Studies have found that by adding MCTs (the fatty acids in coconut oil) to a meal, you can increase the TEF by up to 50 percent, meaning that your original value of 10 percent has now skyrocketed up to 15 percent.
An increased TEF = an increased metabolism. Pure magic, right there.
Now this is the point where most people stop reading and walk away with the naive notion that coconut oil is the be-all-end-all of super foods and, by adding it into their shakes and cooking with it and spreading it on toast and eating it by the spoonful, they’ll somehow magically burn more fuel to increase their metabolism and lose all their belly fat. The end.
Come on guys, of course there’s a catch!
Here’s the issue with that. Coconut oil is still oil so it’s packed full of calories and is very high in saturated fat (117 calories and 12g of saturated fat per tablespoon…that’s more than double the saturated fat found in lard). With that in mind, let us walk you through a couple scenarios:
In order to avoid these additions, let’s say you replace foods with coconut oil in order to keep your meal at 500 calories. Yes, your 50 calorie TEF (10% of 500) becomes 75 calories (15% of 500), leaving you with 425 calories left over for the rest of your body to use or store, but consider what you removed in order to incorporate this ingredient. Did seeking out this slight (temporary) boost in your metabolism cause you to take out something that contained higher nutritional value? How much saturated fat is now in the meal? Was the removed ingredient actually a better choice?
Now say you didn’t remove anything and instead decided to add 1 tbsp of coconut oil. You have now increased your meal by 117 calories, upping your total caloric intake to 617 calories. Your 50 calorie TEF (10% of 500) goes up to a whopping 93 calories (15% of 617) and, while that’s a higher absolute value, it leaves you with a residual of 524 calories for the rest of your body to use or store. That’s 24 calories higher than if you didn’t use the “miracle fat burner” at all…it’s just not enough to displace the additional calories.
The Bottom Line
When it comes down to it, coconut oil in moderation isn’t likely to harm your health and it could actually prove important in the study of metabolic disorders; the research, however, just isn’t there to act as a proponent for it’s use as a weight loss tool and there isn’t enough concrete scientific data to prove it’s value in other proposed areas.
At the end of the day, you aren’t likely to get down a couple pant sizes by spooning the stuff into your smoothie so if you want to be successful in your long-term weight loss goals, stick to a healthy, well-balanced diet paired with regular strength training and challenging cardiovascular exercise.