Coconut Oil is an excellent fat for dieters because it is not readily stored as fat and it mildly promotes thermogenesis*

Remember when “experts” on obesity and heart disease were telling us to not eat salmon, tuna and certain other fish because they contain “too much fat”? Now, of course, it has been proven beyond doubt that the omega-3 fatty acids found in “fatty” fish protect against cardiovascular disease, reduce inflammation, and may even help with weight loss. Well, consumers who value their health should prepare themselves –– the same authorities who got it all wrong when it came to omega-3 oils have missed the boat again when it comes to coconut butter. Coconut butter (or oil) is at last beginning to be recognized as the health food that it is.

Western research currently is validating the high regard that the coconut oil enjoys in the Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions of healing. Coconut oil does not elevate your “bad” cholesterol level (LDL). It actually raises your “good” cholesterol level (HDL) and is slightly lower in calories than are most vegetable oils. Many studies have shown that coconut oil and its components support immune function and reduce the risks of heart disease and many other degenerative conditions associated with aging. It is an excellent choice for dieters because it is not readily stored as fat in the body and it mildly promotes thermogenesis.

Although coconut oil is saturated (it is solid up to 76° F), this does not mean that it is “bad” oil. Coconut oil consists mostly of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA), with 50 percent being lauric acid. Medium-chain fatty acids have been used for many years for special health purposes. One derivative of coconut MCFA is medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil, which is 75 percent caprylic and 25 percent capric acids, fatty acids very similar to lauric acid and present in virgin coconut oil in smaller amounts. MCT oil often is found in the hospital nutrient mixtures for bedridden patients who are dependent upon intravenous nutrition. These fats were developed in part because they do not require the action of bile for digestion, but rather are absorbed directly through the walls of the small intestine and transported to the liver to be used immediately as fuel.

The special characteristics of coconut MCFA mean that the body prefers to burn it for fuel rather than to store it. You might say that the body treats coconut fatty acids more like it does carbohydrates, but without getting involved with insulin. We know this because of our experience with the MCT oil.

In my book Anti-Fat Nutrients (revised 4 th edition, Basic Media, December 2003), I discuss MCT oil at length. In seriously catabolic patients, MCT oil was found to help prevent the body from depleting its lean and muscle tissues. Again, MCT fats are not readily stored as body fat, but rather they are preferentially burned in the mitochondria of the cells to provide energy. [1]  For some athletes and bodybuilders, this quality has proved useful since excess training depletes the glycogen stores of the muscles, and continued training after that point can only take place partially through the break down of muscle protein for fuel. Coconut butter medium-chain fatty acids have properties similar to those of MCT oil, but not as pronounced.

Does this mean that coconut butter can help dieters? Yes, as long as there are not too many expectations. Indeed, the noted nutrition author Ray Peat has remarked that in the 1940s, farmers attempted to use coconut oil for fattening their animals, but they found that it made them lean, active and hungry instead! The fatty acids found in coconut seem to promote the burning of fat for fuel and they appear to have a pronounced thermogenic effect. However, the thermogenic and fat-burning qualities of medium-chain fatty acids seem to be more significant for healthy subjects of normal weight and for those moderately overweight than for those who are clinically obese (fortunately, a category that excludes most of us). Moreover, medium-chain fatty acids serve to protect the body’s protein in the lean tissues during the use of low calorie and low carbohydrate diets. [2]

Coconut butter has many other benefits. Two names are closely associated with the research in this area. These are Jon Kabara, one of the primary researchers into the benefits of lauric acid, and Mary Enig, the great researcher in the area of fats and one of the first (literally decades before the mainstream medical researchers) to point out the health dangers of trans -fatty acids.

Dr. Enig was the keynote speaker in 2001 at the 36th Annual Conference of the Asian Pacific Coconut Community. There she gave her talk on the benefits of the coconut as a functional food. She noted that approximately 50% of the fatty acids in coconut fat are lauric acid, which has the additional beneficial function of being formed into monolaurin in the human body. Monolaurin is the antiviral, antibacterial, and antiprotozoal monoglyceride used by the human metabolism to destroy lipid-coated (that is, fat-coated) viruses such as HIV, herpes, cytomegalovirus and influenza, various pathogenic bacteria, including listeria monocytogenes and helicobacter pylori, as well as parsitic protozoa such as giardia lamblia. Some studies have also shown some antimicrobial effects of the free lauric acid. Other studies have extended the activity of lauric acid to include many yeasts and fungi.

Approximately 6-7% of the fatty acids in coconut fat are capric acid. Dr. Enig points out that capric acid is another medium-chain fatty acid that has a similar beneficial function when it is formed into monocaprin in the human or animal body. Monocaprin has been shown to have antiviral effects against HIV and is being tested for antiviral effects against herpes simplex and antibacterial effects against chlamydia and other sexually transmitted bacteria.

The work of Jon Kabara and others shows that coconut oil components exert their health benefits against pathogens (viruses, bacteria, yeasts, fungi and parasites) in a way that is very safe to humans. In general, it is reported that the fatty acids and monoglycerides produce their killing/inactivating effects by destabilizing the membrane that surrounds pathogens, for instance, by causing the disintegration of the virus envelope. Despite such sometimes quite potent actions against unwanted microbes, there is no evidence of any negative effect on probiotic organisms in the gastrointestinal tract.

In his accessible, yet thoroughly researched book, The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil (HealthWise, 2003), author Bruce Fife ranges across a number of health topics for which coconut oils has proven to be effective. He notes that coconut oil is so stable that it helps to preserve other oils, thereby reducing antioxidant requirements. Populations that eat large amounts of coconut and coconut products, such as the oil, are characterized by low rates of heart disease. Lauric acid and other medium-chain fatty acids are found in mother’s milk, where among other things, they improve the uptake by the baby of nutrients such as amino acids, calcium and magnesium. Similar effects upon nutrient assimilation have been found in the very ill and in the elderly. Moreover, these health benefits do not even take into account the long accepted uses of coconut oil to nourish the skin and the hair.

In his book, Bruce Fife asks the rhetorical questions, “If there was an oil you could use for your daily cooking needs that helped protect you from heart disease...other degenerative conditions, improved your digestion, strengthened your immune system, protected you from infectious diseases, and helped you lose excess weight, would you be interested?” Surely this is a good question. Aside from the record of traditional use, more than 20 research papers and a number of United States Patents argue for the health-promoting benefits of coconut oil. Now that organic coconut butter is readily available in health food stores, perhaps it is time for health-conscious shoppers to give it a try.

Dallas Clouatre, Ph.D., is a prominent industry consultant in the US, Europe, and Asia, and is a sought-after speaker and spokesperson. He earned his A.B. from Stanford and his Ph.D. in European Intellectual History from the University of California at Berkeley. A member of the American College of Nutrition, he is a regular contributor to various industry publications. He is the author of numerous books, including FAQ: All About Grapeseed Extract, SAM-e: The Ultimate Methyl Donor, Anti-Fat Nutrients (3rd edition), and The Prostate Cancer Miracle.

1. Babayan VK. Medium chain triglycerides and structured lipids. Lipids 1987 Jun;22(6):417-20.
2. Dias VC, et al. Effects of medium-chain triglyceride feeding on energy balance in adult humans. Metabolism 1990;39:887-891.