Coconut oil is widely marketed as a superfood.
The unique combination of fatty acids in coconut oil may have positive effects on your health, such as boosting fat loss, heart health, and brain function.
Here are 10 evidence-based health benefits of coconut oil.
1. Coconut oil contains healthy fatty acids
Coconut oil is high in certain saturated fats. These fats have different effects on the body compared with most other dietary fats.
The fatty acids in coconut oil can encourage your body to burn fat, and they provide quick energy to your body and brain. They also raise HDL (good) cholesterol in your blood, which may help reduce heart disease risk.
Most dietary fats are categorized as long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), while coconut oil contains some medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are shorter fatty acid chains.
When you eat MCTs, they tend to go straight to your liver. Your body uses them as a quick source of energy or turns them into ketones.
Ketones can have powerful benefits for your brain, and researchers are studying ketones as a treatment for epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, and other conditions.
Summary: Coconut oil is high in MCTs, a type of fat that your body metabolizes differently than most other fats. MCTs are responsible for many of the health benefits of coconut oil.
2. Coconut oil may boost heart health
Coconut is an uncommon food in the Western world, with health-conscious people being the main consumers.
However, in some parts of the world, coconut — which is loaded with coconut oil — is a dietary staple that people have thrived on for generations.
For example, a 1981 study noted that the population of Tokelau, an island chain in the South Pacific, obtained over 60% of their calories from coconuts. Researchers reported not only good overall health but also very low rates of heart disease.
Kitavan people in Papua New Guinea also eat a lot of coconuts, alongside tubers, fruit, and fish, and have a fewer stroke or heart disease risk.
Summary: Several populations around the world have thrived for generations eating a substantial amount of coconut, and studies show they have good heart health.
3. Coconut oil may encourage fat burning
Obesity is one of the biggest health conditions affecting the Western world today.
While some people think obesity is just a matter of how many calories someone eats, the source of those calories is important, too. Different foods affect your body and hormones in different ways.
The MCTs in coconut oil can increase the number of calories your body burns compared with longer-chain fatty acids.
One study found that eating 15–30 grams of MCTs per day increased 24-hour energy expenditure by 5%.
However, these studies didn’t specifically look at the effects of coconut oil. They examined the health effects of MCTs, excluding lauric acid, which make up only about 14% of coconut oil.
There’s currently no good evidence to say that eating coconut oil itself will increase the number of calories you expend.
Keep in mind that coconut oil is very high in calories and can easily lead to weight gain if eaten in large amounts.
Summary: Research notes that MCTs can increase the number of calories burned over 24 hours by as much as 5%. However, coconut oil itself may not have the same effect.
4. Coconut oil may have antimicrobial effects
Lauric acid makes up about 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil.
When your body digests lauric acid, it forms a substance called monolaurin. Both lauric acid and monolaurin can kill harmful pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
For example, test-tube studies show that these substances help kill the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections, and the yeast Candida albicans, a common source of yeast infections in humans.
Suggested read: 13 evidence-based health benefits of fish oil
There’s also some evidence that using coconut oil as a mouthwash — a process called oil pulling — benefits oral hygiene, though researchers consider the evidence weak.
There’s no evidence that coconut oil reduces your risk of the common cold or other internal infections.
Summary: Using coconut oil as a mouthwash may prevent mouth infections, but more evidence is needed.
5. Coconut oil may reduce hunger
One interesting feature of MCTs is that they may reduce hunger.
This may be related to the way your body metabolizes fats because ketones can reduce a person’s appetite.
In one study, 6 healthy men ate varying amounts of MCTs and LCTs. Those who ate the most MCTs ate fewer calories per day.
Another study in 14 healthy men reported that those who ate the most MCTs at breakfast ate fewer calories at lunch.
These studies were small and had a very short timescale. If this effect were to persist over the long term, it could lead to reduced body weight over several years.
Although coconut oil is one of the richest natural sources of MCTs, there’s no evidence that coconut oil intake reduces appetite more than other oils.
One study reports that coconut oil is less filling than MCT oil.
Summary: MCTs can significantly reduce appetite, which may lead to reduced body weight over the long term.
6. Coconut oil may reduce seizures
Researchers are currently studying the ketogenic diet, which is very low in carbs and high in fats, to treat various disorders.
The best known therapeutic use of this diet is treating drug-resistant epilepsy in children.
The diet dramatically reduces the rate of seizures in children with epilepsy, even those who haven’t had success with multiple types of drugs. Researchers aren’t sure why.
Reducing carb intake and increasing fat intake leads to greatly increased concentrations of ketones in the blood.
Suggested read: 7 science-based health benefits of MCT oil
Because the MCTs in coconut oil gets transported to your liver and turned into ketones, healthcare professionals may use a modified keto diet that includes MCTs and a more generous carb allowance to induce ketosis and help treat epilepsy.
Summary: The MCTs in coconut oil can increase the blood concentration of ketone bodies, which can help reduce seizures in children with epilepsy.
7. Coconut oil may raise HDL (good) cholesterol
Coconut oil contains natural saturated fats that increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels in your body. They may also help turn LDL (bad) cholesterol into a less harmful form.
By increasing HDL, many experts believe that coconut oil may boost heart health compared with many other fats.
In one study in 40 women, coconut oil reduced total and LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL, compared with soybean oil.
Another study in 116 adults showed that following a diet program that included coconut oil raised levels of HDL (good) cholesterol in people with coronary artery disease.
Summary: A few studies have shown that coconut oil can raise blood levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, which is linked to improved metabolic health and a lower risk of heart disease.
8. Coconut oil may protect your skin, hair, and teeth
Coconut oil has many uses that have nothing to do with eating it.
Many people use it for cosmetic purposes to improve the health and appearance of their skin and hair.
Studies show that coconut oil can improve the moisture content of dry skin and reduce the symptoms of eczema.
Coconut oil can also protect against hair damage. One study shows that it may work as a weak sunscreen, blocking about 20% of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Oil pulling, which involves swishing coconut oil in your mouth like mouthwash, may kill some of the harmful bacteria in the mouth. This may improve dental health and reduce bad breath, though more research is needed.
Summary: People can apply coconut oil to their skin, hair, and teeth. Studies suggest it works as a skin moisturizer, protects against skin damage, and improves oral health.
9. Coconut oil may boost brain function in Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia. It usually affects older adults.
This condition reduces your brain’s ability to use glucose for energy.
Researchers have suggested that ketones can provide an alternative energy source for these malfunctioning brain cells to reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease.
The authors of a 2006 study reported that MCTs improved brain function in people with milder forms of Alzheimer’s disease.
Yet, research is still preliminary, and no evidence suggests that coconut oil itself combats this illness.
Summary: Early studies suggest that MCTs can increase blood levels of ketones, potentially relieving Alzheimer’s symptoms. Yet, further studies are needed.
10. Coconut oil may help reduce harmful abdominal fat
As some of the fatty acids in coconut oil can reduce appetite and increase fat burning, it may also help you lose weight.
Abdominal fat, or visceral fat, lodges in the abdominal cavity and around your organs. MCTs appear to be especially effective at reducing belly fat compared to LCTs.
Abdominal fat, the most harmful type, is linked to many chronic diseases.
Waist circumference is an easy, accurate marker for the amount of fat in the abdominal cavity.
In a 12-week study in 40 women with abdominal obesity, those who took 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of coconut oil per day had a significant reduction in both Body Mass Index (BMI) and waist circumference.
Meanwhile, a 4-week study in 20 men with obesity noted a reduction in waist circumference of 1.1 inches (2.86 cm) after they took 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of coconut oil per day.
Coconut oil is still high in calories, so you should use it sparingly. Replacing some of your other cooking fats with coconut oil could have a small weight loss benefit, but the evidence is inconsistent overall.
The oil derived from coconuts has several emerging benefits for your health.
To get the most out of it, make sure to choose organic, virgin coconut oil rather than refined versions.
Suggested read: Why extra virgin olive oil is the healthiest fat on earth