Coconut oil has recently garnered significant attention in the natural health products industry for some very marketable uses such as weight loss. However, the use of coconut oil is not a new practice in wholistic systems of medicine; in fact, coconut oil has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years in a variety of applications, including hair loss, burns, and heart problems (DebMandel & Mandel 2011). An internet search for “coconut oil Dr. Oz” leads one to a website entitled “Coconut Oil Super Powers, Pt. 1” (Author unknown 2012). Super powers? Let’s have a look at the evidence to see what super powers it really possesses with respect to weight loss.
There are very few studies available in the public domain investigating the use of coconut oil in weight management. A recent review maintains that coconut oil is completely non-toxic to humans (DebMandel & Mandel 2011); an important detail for the industry as well as practitioners of natural medicine. The oil has an abundance of medium chain saturated fatty acids (MCFAs), the most prevalent of which is the twelve-carbon lauric acid (C-12:0) at 49% (Yong et al. 2009, cited in DebMandel & Mandal 2011). MCFAs are unique in that they can be directly absorbed from the intestine and sent to the liver for rapid energy production without directly participating in cholesterol synthesis or transport (DebMandel & Mandel 2011). Unlike long chain fatty acids, MCFAs are not stored in adipose tissue (Liau et al. 2011).
What’s the evidence supporting the use of coconut oil in weight loss?
A 2009 study by Assuncao et al. (2009) demonstrated some potential for the use of 30 ml of coconut oil in abdominal obesity when used in conjunction with a balanced and directed dietary intervention and physical activity regimen. The study was performed in 40 obese women over the course of 12 weeks, and the results included a significant decrease in body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference (Assuncao et al. 2009). However, the comparison group ingesting soy bean oil had a lesser waist circumference at the beginning of the study. A very important difference was observed between the groups with respect to their cardiovascular risk factors; those who consumed coconut oil did not exhibit adverse changes in their lipid profiles, whereas those who ingested soy bean oil exhibited deleterious changes including a significant increase in LDL:HDL ratio (composed of both an increase in LDL and a decrease in HDL), a significant increase in total cholesterol (TC), and a non-significant increase in triglycerides . An important biochemical change was observed that indicated that coconut oil consumption may contribute to insulin resistance. The increase in HOMA-S, a measure of insulin resistance, was raised non-significantly compared to baseline, but significantly compared to soybean oil control (Assuncao et al. 2009).
Liau et al. conducted a pilot study in which the participants ingested 30 ml of virgin coconut oil in divided doses, half an hour before meals for 4 weeks. The BMI levels used for determining “overweight” and “obese” were lower than those normally used by practitioners in North America. Results demonstrated a significant decrease in waist circumference as a result of the treatment; however, upon further analysis, the significant change was specific to the men in the group (Liau et al. 2011). Other limitations of the study were a lack of long term follow-up, small study size, open label design, and lack of a control group.
Is coconut oil safe when consumed in normal amounts in the diet? Yes. The real question is “Will it make you lose weight?”
The idea that any supplement, when taken in isolation, causes significant weight loss without any other lifestyle interventions is debatable in theory and, in my experience, practice. The misconception that excessive adipose tissue or poor body composition is a singular, isolated symptom is far too simplified. There are myriad contributors to poor body composition, including the relationship between stress and behavior, glycemic index of food choices and resultant hyperinsulinemia, physical activity, eating frequency, and food sensitivities, among many, many more.
High-quality evidence to support efficacy requires first-rate studies. From a regulatory point of view, bigger and bolder claims require bigger and bolder evidence. For highly-scrutinized claims such as weight loss or weight management, this is especially true.
And at this point, the evidence seems a little thin.
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