Coconut oil is an increasingly popular cooking oil.
Many people praise it for its health benefits, including antimicrobial and antioxidant properties, improved skin and oral health, and weight loss potential.
Here are 10 evidence-based health benefits of coconut oil, plus some special considerations to keep in mind if you want to include it in your diet.
1. May encourage fat burning
Coconut oil is a rich source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of saturated fat.
In general, saturated fats are divided into three subgroups, each of which has different effects in your body. These subgroups are (1):
Scientists are studying medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), including those found in coconut oil, for their potential health benefits.
For instance, some evidence shows that consuming MCTs may increase the number of calories your body burns. In doing so, it may help promote weight loss (2, 3).
Since the fats in coconut oil are 65% MCT, it may have fat-burning properties that are similar to pure MCT oil (1).
However, there’s currently no good evidence to say that eating coconut oil itself will increase the number of calories you burn.
In fact, studies on MCT’s weight loss potential even call for caution when interpreting results because larger and higher-quality studies are still needed (2, 3).
While MCTs may increase how many calories you burn, keep in mind that coconut oil is very high in calories and can easily lead to weight gain if you consume it in large amounts.
Researchers have found that consuming a type of saturated fat in coconut oil, called MCTs, may increase the number of calories you burn. However, it’s still unclear if coconut oil itself has this effect.
2. May work as a quick source of energy
The MCTs in coconut oil provide a quick supply of energy.
When you eat long-chain triglycerides (LCTs), the fat molecules are transported through your blood to tissues that need them, such as muscle or fat tissue (4).
On the other hand, MCTs go straight to your liver and become a rapid energy supply in much the same way as carbs — your body’s preferred source of energy (5).
In fact, MCTs have been long used in sports nutrition products for athletes who need a source of energy their body can absorb and use fast (1, 5).
Coconut oil is high in MCTs, which your body metabolizes differently than LCTs. MCTs provide a rapid energy source that your body can absorb and use faster than other types of saturated fat.
3. May have antimicrobial effects
Coconut oil has antimicrobial and antifungal properties due to its MCT content — specifically, lauric acid (1).
Lauric acid is a fatty acid that makes up about 50% of the MCTs in coconut oil.
Research suggests it may have antimicrobial effects against disease-causing microorganisms, such as (1, 6):
- Staphylococcus aureus
- Streptococcus mutans
- Streptococcus pyogenes
- Escherichia coli
- Helicobacter pylori
Studies show that lauric acid may act as a bacteriostatic agent. This is a substance that prevents bacteria from multiplying without killing the bacteria.
It may also act as a bacteriocidal agent, which destroys some bacteria (1, 7).
In addition, it may also inhibit the growth of microorganisms that are harmful to plants (6).
Lauric acid in coconut oil may have antimicrobial properties against a variety of harmful microorganisms.
4. May help reduce hunger
One interesting feature of MCTs is that they may help reduce food intake (8, 9).
This may be related to how the body breaks them down. A proportion of MCTs you eat are broken down in a process that produces molecules called ketones (1).
Ketones reduce appetite by either acting directly on the brain’s chemical messengers or altering the levels of hunger-inducing hormones, such as ghrelin (10).
You may be familiar with ketones in the context of ketogenic diets, which are quite popular these days. People who are on keto diets don’t eat many carbs, but they do often eat lots of fat. For this reason, their bodies tend to use ketones for fuel.
However, though coconut oil is one of the richest natural sources of MCTs, there’s no evidence that coconut oil itself reduces appetite more than other oils. In fact, one study reports that coconut oil is less filling than MCT oil (11).
MCTs may help reduce food intake by decreasing hunger. However, evidence suggests that coconut oil doesn’t necessarily offer the same effect.
5. May help reduce seizures
People have long used keto diets, which are very low in carbs and high in fats, to treat various disorders, including drug-resistant epilepsy. They have been shown to help reduce how often seizures happen (12, 13).
Researchers believe that the lack of available glucose to fuel brain cells is a possible explanation for the reduction in seizure frequency in people with epilepsy on ketogenic diets (12).
However, overall, there’s a lack of evidence for the use of keto diets in adults and infants with epilepsy, so more research is needed (14).
Reducing your carb intake reduces the glucose in your blood, and increasing your fat intake leads to significantly increased concentrations of ketones. Your brain can use ketones as an energy source instead of glucose (1).
Recently, people have found they can effectively treat epilepsy by following modified keto diets that include MCTs and a more generous carb allowance to induce ketosis (12, 13).
Research shows that the MCTs in coconut oil get transported to your liver and turned into ketones (15).
MCTs in coconut oil can increase blood ketone concentrations, which may help reduce seizure frequency.
6. May boost skin health
Coconut oil has many uses that have little to do with eating. Many people use it for cosmetic purposes to improve the health and appearance of their skin.
Studies show that coconut oil can boost the moisture content of dry skin. It may also improve the function of the skin, helping prevent excessive water loss and protecting you from external factors, such as infectious agents, chemicals, and allergens (16, 17, 18, 19).
In fact, a recent study determined that applying 6–8 drops of virgin coconut oil on your hands and leaving it overnight may be an effective way to prevent dry skin caused by frequent use of alcohol-based hand sanitizers (20).
It may also reduce the severity of mild to moderate symptoms of atopic dermatitis, a chronic skin disease characterized by skin inflammation and defects in skin barrier function (18, 21, 22).
Coconut oil may help moisturize your skin and improve skin barrier function.
7. May protect your hair
Coconut oil can also protect against hair damage.
For instance, one study determined that, since coconut oil deeply penetrates hair strands, it makes them more flexible and increases their strength to prevent them from breaking under tension (23).
Similarly, another study found that coconut oil nourishes hair strands and reduces breakage, which further strengthens the hair (24).
Coconut oil may help strengthen your hair by increasing flexibility and reducing the breakage of hair strands.
8. May improve oral health
Evidence shows that using coconut oil as a mouthwash — a process called oil pulling — benefits oral hygiene in a cost-effective way (25, 26).
Oil pulling involves swishing coconut oil in your mouth like mouthwash. It may significantly reduce the count of harmful bacteria in the mouth — namely S. mutans — compared with a regular mouthwash (27, 28).
This is thought to be due to the antibacterial properties of lauric acid (27, 28).
Additionally, lauric acid in coconut oil reacts with saliva to form a soap-like substance that prevents cavities and helps reduce dental plaque buildup and gum inflammation (28, 29).
However, the review studies note that there’s limited evidence on this topic and that oil pulling doesn’t replace dental therapy. More research is needed on the effects of oil pulling on dental health (28).
Coconut oil may be a cost-effective way to improve oral health due to its lauric acid content.
9. May help reduce symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease
Alzheimer’s disease is the most common cause of dementia (1).
This condition reduces your brain’s ability to use glucose for energy. However, researchers believe that ketones can offset early signs of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease by providing an alternative energy source for brain cells (1, 30, 31).
For this reason, individual foods like coconut oil have been investigated for their potential role in managing Alzheimer’s disease (1).
Yet, larger studies in humans are needed.
Since coconut oil is rich in MCTs, which significantly increase blood levels of ketones, it may potentially help with symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. However, further studies are needed.
10. A good antioxidant source
Coconut oil is a good source of antioxidants, which help neutralize damaging molecules called free radicals. This, in turn, helps ward off several chronic and degenerative diseases (32).
Some of the main types of antioxidants in the oil are (33, 34):
Antioxidants in coconut oil confer it with potential anti-inflammatory and brain-protective effects (1, 35, 36).
One study also suggests the possible role of coconut oil, particularly the MCT lauric acid, in reducing secondary diabetic complications (35).
Coconut oil is a good source of antioxidants, which provide anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, and brain-protective effects.
In recent years, coconut oil has been touted as beneficial for heart health. That’s because some evidence suggests it may lower LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and increase HDL (good) cholesterol levels.
However, evidence on the effects of coconut oil on blood cholesterol levels is conflicting.
Further research has determined that it may actually significantly increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels — which increases the risk of heart disease (1, 37, 38).
One possible explanation for the contradictory results could be differing methods between studies. For example, some studies compare the effects of coconut oil with other sources of saturated vegetable fats, while others compare it with saturated animal fats — such as butter (1).
Compared with vegetable fats, coconut oil increases both LDL (bad) and total cholesterol levels to a greater extent. However, this increase is smaller compared with that of butter (1, 39).
An increase in HDL (good) cholesterol levels actually reduces the risk of heart disease, so you might think that the increase in HDL from coconut oil could be beneficial.
However, the American Heart Association (AHA) has determined that increases in HDL caused by diet or drug therapy do not appear to be directly linked to changes in the risk of heart disease (40).
So, the increase in LDL (bad) cholesterol levels outshines the benefits. That’s why the AHA advises against using it for heart health (40).
This doesn’t necessarily mean that you should avoid coconut oil altogether. Simply try to limit its intake within the current recommendations for saturated fat intake, which is less than 10% of your total calories per day (39, 41).
There’s conflicting evidence on the benefits of coconut oil for heart health. However, the AHA advises against consuming it to reduce your risk of heart disease. Try to limit your intake to 10% of your daily calorie intake.
The bottom line
Coconut oil has a number of emerging benefits for your health, both when you add it to your diet or use it for cosmetic purposes.
However, be sure to consume it in moderation. Health authorities advise keeping your intake moderate to avoid increasing your risk of heart disease.
Just one thing
Try this today: If you’re not sure whether you should choose refined or unrefined coconut oil, read this article, which compares the two versions and their different properties and uses.