COCONUT OIL : superfood or hype?

Can I just start out by saying that I really, really, really do not like Dr Oz.

Or rather, I dislike the outrageous claims he makes on national television without having the scientific evidence and clinical research to back them up.

Last year on his show, Dr Oz told us that “superpowers” are what coconut oil is full of.

…..what???? Where did you get this, Dr. Oz????! That’s a pretty bold statement considering how little solid research we actually have.

One of the things I am most proud of as a dietitian is that we are truly focused on evidence based research. We do not (or most of us, anyway) become swayed by the fads and claims of the media. When presenting nutritional information, we carefully highlight if things are “still being researched” and use words like “potential” and “possible”. That’s because we can’t make hard and fast claims off of one or two clinical trial or a few testimonies. You cannot make guarantees that may never actually come true. It’s just wrong, not fair to the general public, and an abuse of power.

That being said, there is a decent amount of research in progress on the effects of coconut oil on the body. Some of the trials are neutral, others are supporting the benefits, but there still ISN’T enough research to make an educated claim.

Let’s go over two of the most common claims:


Dr. George Cahill in the 60’s was the first to discover that the brain is actually able to use ketones for energy.

Why is this important?

Our brain , in normal conditions, uses glucose for energy to process information. During starvation, when our glucose supplies are depleted, our body uses its fat stores for energy and uses “ketones” instead of glucose. The problem in Alzheimer’s disease is that the brain starts to forget how to use glucose and begins to “starve”. In an ideal situation, the brain would switch to ketones for energy , avoid starvation and also the progression of disease, keeping mental function intact. Part of the reason that coconut oil has been toted as a “cure” for Alzheimer’s disease is that the oil is composed of 60% medium chain triglycerides (MCT’s) which are a faster metabolizing fat that produces small amounts of ketones when broken down for energy. The problem is, this small amount of ketone production from dietary intake alone is not enough to counteract the starvation of the brain because the levels are not high enough to make a substantial difference.

There ARE documented cases of individuals (google Dr Mary Newport and her husband Steve Newport, for example) who have testimonies to the benefits of coconut oil in combatting mental diseases. But, there just isn’t enough solid research to make a true, scientific claim. The studies available are preliminary at best.
The NIH is currently in the middle of a 3 year study to determine the effects of coconut oil on adults with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease. The study is set to conclude in December 2016. I’ll definitely be following up on this one.


This claim comes from the fact that coconut oil is primarily composed of MCT’s, like I mentioned earlier. This type of fat is more easily broken down by the liver and is a quicker energy source for the body. There is some indication that this type of fat produces a mild thermogenic (calorie-burning) effect when broken down for energy.

One particular study divided two groups of obese women into one group which consumed 30ml of coconut oil and another group which consumed 30ml of soybean oil. Both groups followed a reduced calorie diet and exercise program. The group who consumed the coconut oil experienced a reduction in abdominal fat.

Yet another study involving animals found that the group of animals consuming a controlled amount of MCT’s did not experience any difference in body fat loss compared to the group consuming a placebo oil.

Another study involving 30 adults did find that those adults who consumed coconut oil as a part of their diet and exercise program did experience, on average, more fat loss than their placebo counterparts.

There are multiple smaller studies performed on the effects of MCTs on fat loss, but many of them have limitations or just simply didn’t include enough information in their trials to come up with an educated result. More research is needed to come up with a conclusion.

The take away….
Even though there’s still alot of questions unanswered, I see no harm in substituting the fat in your diet with coconut oil. I would treat it just like you would any other calorie dense item: in moderation. I think coconut oil has alot of potentially promising benefits that we just need to take with a grain of salt, and I’m really looking forward to the results of the Clinical studies that are in progress to learn more.

Thanks for reading! Would love to hear any opinions, opposition or agreement.

My references and sources:

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