Everyone seems to be crazy for coconut oil these days, and I’ve had clients and friends ask me if they should be eating a tablespoon or more a day to help them shed belly fat.
I also think I know where a lot of the coconut oil craze started. In one of his shows, Dr. Oz said, “Coconut oil is a miracle food with super powers.” He went on to say that the oil’s most powerful benefits include weight loss, skin health and treating ulcers.
But before you make an oil change, there’s more to the story and as we’ve said before good TV often equals bad medicine.
Clearing Up the Coconut Oil Confusion
The research conducted and published to date on coconut oil has used virgin coconut oil, which is much different than the mass produced coconut oil that’s produced from dried coconut, and is most readily available in the supermarkets. Like extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil provides natural antioxidants that are stripped out of more processed oils. In addition, there are few human clinical trials using coconut oil that are available to back up most of the popular claims. If you’re going to purchase coconut oil, be sure it’s the virgin oil, and you can expect to pay about $10-20.00 for a 16-oz bottle.
Here are some of the problems with using coconut oil as a diet aid:
To lose weight, you need to eat fewer calories than you burn off. Period. Eating foods rich in calories–like fats and oils–makes weight loss harder, not easier. Like any fat like butter, vegetable oil or lard, coconut oil is 100% fat and therefore, is calorie-rich. A Tbs of coconut oil packs in 120 calories and 13 grams of fat so simply adding it to your diet without taking out some calories won’t help you banish belly fat. Some dietitians have seen that clients who started taking coconut oil for health benefits actually gained weight!
As Dr. Oz said, “…Coconut oil has gotten a bad rap because it’s saturated fat. But the science and research is changing all that we know about coconut oil.”
It’s true: Coconut oil is naturally rich in saturated fat, with 12-13 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. In fact, it has more saturated fat than lard, butter and any of the popular vegetables oils like olive oil, corn or soybean oils. That’s what makes it so firm and solid at room temperatures.
Saturated fat is like blood sludge that raises harmful LDL cholesterol levels and the American Heart Association recommends that we keep saturated fat to less than 7% of total calories. For a woman, that’s no more than 14 grams of saturated fat a day—or about what you get in a tablespoon of coconut oil.
You’ll hear coconut oil advocates say that the saturated fats in coconut oil are medium-chain triglycerides (primarily lauric acid), which means that they are more readily metabolized than the long-chain saturated fats. While there may be a bit of truth to this, believing that coconut oil is not going to contribute to weight gain and it won’t be stored as belly fat. Again, there is really no long-term evidence to support such claim.
Experts at most health organizations as well as Harvard School of Public Health, Mayo Clinic and Cleveland Clinic say you should use it sparingly due to its saturated fat and calorie counts. In addition, I know of several RDs that say that clients who added more coconut oil to their diets often experienced increases in harmful cholesterol levels too. In fact, one of my colleagues said a patient’s LDL-cholesterol went from 90 to 168 after using 2Tbs daily in 5 months (she started taking it after hearing Dr. Oz promoted coconut oil on his show). What’s more, the increase in LDL was of the small particle size, which is considered the most harmful for your heart.
The Bottom Line on Coconut Oil
Using coconut oil when cooking Thai dishes and others that call for coconut oil won’t harm your health, but adding coconut oil to your diet won’t help you lose weight either. If you want to peel off pounds, read our “Lose It” features and try one of our monthly calorie-controlled meal plans.