Coconut oil has certainly made press headlines in the last decade as a miracle oil not unlike fish, krill and flaxseed oils. Claims of dramatic weight loss, relief of arthritic pain, a potent immune booster, or a cure-all for cardiovascular disease have all run rampant over the internet, in books and on television. Why some products like coconut oil reach borderline cult status is still a mystery to me, but nonetheless, it is a hot topic. Perhaps much of it stems from the aggressive marketing from coconut oil producers, and the push-back from health authorities such as the World Health Organization, FDA, International College of Nutrition, the USDA, American Dietetic Association, American Heart Association and the Dieticians of Canada – not that they are the ultimate authority on health, but many would obviously assume they were.

Having absorbed much of the controversy through osmosis, I generally find that many of the health claims are a wash, or arguments put forth for the sake of argument. In other cases, the debate centers around technicalities. Let’s look through a few of these, starting with the juiciest one – weight loss.

Coconut oil is almost 120 calories per tablespoon, and ….wait for it…..some coconut oil manufacturers are telling you to consume up to 5 tablespoons per day for weight loss and other health benefits. In other words, they are telling you to consume 600 calories, or the equivalent of a whole meal in the form of coconut oil. How is this good for weight loss again? How is this good for anything? I thought adding more calories to my diet were bad for weight loss? Well you ma’am are correct in your assumptions.

Coconut Face, by tree-species, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Where the confusion lies is in the composition of coconut oil. You see, virgin coconut oil contains 40% long chain fatty acids, and 60% medium chain fatty acids (while hydrogenated coconut oil is far worse). While both of these fatty acids equally contribute to your calorie intake, medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) are burned rapidly in the body and thus increase metabolism. MCTs cause you to burn more calories!! Hurray!!! Wait, didn’t I just consume 600 calories though? Yes ma’am you did, but the 40% MCTs in your 600 calories of coconut oil raised your metabolism by about 5%, thus while you consumed 600 calories in coconut oil, your burned over 100 of them faster than most types of fat.

So, guess what, you’re still 500 calories up – congratulations, you’ll just get fatter if you keep this up. Munching 5 tablespoons of coconut oil per day is not a good strategy….at all. At least your insulin is happy with you; so there’s that.

Where you can use coconut oil for weight loss, is by replacing some of the calories you normally consume as fat with coconut oil instead. So if you normally consume 60 grams of fat from canola, flax, fish and walnut oils per day (none of which significantly boost your metabolism), you might consider replacing 15g (1 tablespoon) of these fats with coconut oil, and enjoy some of the mild metabolism boost while keeping your calories the same. However, even with this strategic approach, it is unlikely that any of this will translate to weight loss; as the complete lack of evidence that coconut oil is good for weight loss outside of cute theories such as this would suggest.

Let’s look at some other coconut oil mysteries – probably one of the biggest ones. Coconut oil is nearly 90% saturated, which means it contains more saturated fat than anything else on the planet. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve most likely heard that saturated fat is the “bad” one, and that all your favourite stuff like bacon and burgers is rich in saturated fat. Well, it’s true, coconut oil is very high in saturated fat and countries that consume large amounts of coconut oil have higher amounts of cholesterol (HDL and LDL) in their blood, yet there are several good experimental studies that show coconut oil lowers cholesterol. Others show that it dramatically raises HDL cholesterol which is your protective “good” cholesterol. Don’t forget the anti-oxidants present in coconut oil that would set it apart from other animal based saturated fats. Voila – the jury is still out, and I wouldn’t eat coconut oil for any of these cholesterol changing reasons; I’d eat it because it tastes good darnit.

So how should you use coconut oil? Just like any other oil. It’s hard at room temperature, tastes like coconuts, is good for sautéing stir-fry, and has some metabolism boosting effects to boot. As to whether I would use it medicinally, based on the evidence, the answer is a resounding NO – that honour goes to long chain omega 3 fatty acids such as EPA and DHA, where thousands of studies speak volumes.