It’s an essential ingredient in Bulletproof coffee, skin creams, your favorite curry and hair conditioners. If you believed all the hype about coconut oil — particularly unrefined, virgin, organic coconut oil — you’d be eating it by the spoonful and bathing in it for good measure. Is coconut oil really all it’s cracked up to be? Probably not — is anything, after all? — but there’s definitely evidence for some of its purported benefits.
The Coconut Oil Controversy
Before getting to the healthy benefits of coconut oil, it's only fair to acknowledge that there’s more than a little controversy surrounding its coronation as the healthiest of oils. Dr. Walter Willet of the Harvard School of Public Health sums up the general position of most mainstream medical organizations: Coconut oil is high in saturated fat. It is, in fact, higher in saturated fat than beef fat or lard. Typically, medical authorities suggest you avoid or at least minimize the amount of saturated fat in your diet. Based on the high percentage of saturated fat, coconut oil would be a diet no-no except for one thing; about half the saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, which promotes the formation of HDL, the so-called good cholesterol. At this point, most of the research into the benefits of organic coconut oil focuses on how it affects cholesterol. Few high-quality studies follow the long-term effects of coconut oil on your heart and other health, and a considerable number of doctors out there are trying to debunk the health claims for coconut oil. That said, some studies suggest coconut oil helps support healthy skin, healthy hair and a healthy body in several ways.
1. Coconut Oil Provides Quick Fuel for Your Body
Most of the fats in coconut oil are medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are processed more quickly than the long-chain triglycerides that are more common in dietary fat. According to Healthline, MCTs go straight to your liver where they’re converted into energy or turned into ketones. That makes coconut oil a source of quick energy when you need a boost.
2. Coconut Oil May Be Beneficial for People With Alzheimer’s Disease
Researchers know that the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease don’t use glucose well. They speculate that ketones may provide an alternate source of energy to fuel brain function in patients with Alzheimer’s. While the research into this possibility is still early, at least one study found that ketogenic diets — diets that produce high levels of ketones — improved the brain functions of some patients in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease.
3. Coconut Oil Increases Good Cholesterol
The MCTs in coconut oil promote a healthier cholesterol profile by increasing the amount of HDL in your blood. However, a small, well-regulated study found a number of other benefits when they tested the effects of coconut oil against the effects of peanut oil in the diet. In addition to improving the circulating blood cholesterol, the coconut oil diet also improved insulin sensitivity in men with normal BMI.
4. Coconut Oil May Help You Lose Weight
Researchers have pinpointed another coconut oil benefit that may be linked to the boost in ketones produced by eating MCTs, and it may help you reduce the number of calories you eat. In two separate studies with healthy men, those who ate more MCTs consumed fewer calories over the course of the day. While both studies were short-term and with a small population, it’s reasonable to speculate that the effect of eating fewer calories over an extended period can help with weight loss.
5. Virgin Coconut Oil Benefits for the Skin
You don’t have to eat coconut oil to realize its benefits. Coconut oil — particularly virgin coconut oil and organic coconut oil — also offers benefits if you rub it on your skin. A review of studies into the benefits of vegetable oils for the skin found that coconut oil has antimicrobial properties, helps protect from the sun’s UV rays (but you should still wear sunscreen), does a better job of maintaining skin moisture than mineral oils and other types of vegetable oils, and it reduces inflammation.
Coconut oil may not be an absolute superfood, but it seems to offer some definite benefits for people who use it in moderation. If you decide to check it out for yourself, be sure to opt for pure organic virgin coconut oil. One other quality of coconut oil that’s proven by research is that it improves the absorption of other ingredients by your skin, so you want to be sure you’re not absorbing pesticides or other chemicals. Other than that, stick to small amounts in your food — two tablespoons contain about the recommended daily limit of saturated fat for an adult woman — and feel free to slather it on anywhere you want smooth, moisturized skin.
Deb Powers is a freelance writer who has been writing about wellness and health topics for various publications since 2003.