Does coconut oil really help with weight loss and other ailments?

Many studies show the early weight loss boost from using coconut oil over other oils levels out to no significant difference after 14 days.
By Stephen Feller  |  Updated June 15, 2016 at 7:43 AM
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WASHINGTON, June 14 (UPI) -- Is it possible to lose weight, reverse the effects of diabetes and arthritis, keep skin looking younger and reverse degenerative eye disease all by adding a some coconut oil to your diet?

Though it has faded in and out of popularity over the years, coconut oil keeps coming back as a non-pharmaceutical remedy for just about everything. There is disagreement, however, on whether the reported benefits of consuming the fatty oil every day is what improves a long list of maladies or those improvements can be credited elsewhere.

Coconut oil is thought to be more healthy because it is about 60 percent medium-chain triglycerides, a healthier form of fat. There is no shortage of studies showing MCTs increase levels of healthy cholesterol. While this increases overall levels of cholesterol, scientists, doctors and experts say this is good.

Studies have shown that increases in ketones and changes to metabolism, caused by MCTs being easier for the body to break down, lead to weight loss even without changes to diet. To some people, this is nonsense.

"I have never seen weight loss due to coconut oil with any of my clients," Susie Bond, a nutritionist with Health First Pro Health and Wellness Centers, told UPI. She added that for much of what she's seen claiming coconut oil can stimulate weight loss without changing diet or physical activity, "those claims of weight loss are either inaccurate or exaggerated."

More than 10,000 studies have been conducted on coconut oil as it relates to weight loss, according to Dr. Bruce Fife of The Coconut Research Center.

Four studies conducted at McGill University between 1999 and 2003 showed consumption of MCTs, rather than long-chain triglycerides, can increase metabolism and decrease appetite with little or no change to diet.

Like other studies in China, France and Boston, the McGill studies showed involuntary decreases in appetite and eating. And in many studies measuring weight, in addition to these seven studies, participants experienced weight loss ranging from two pounds to as much as 14 pounds, in two weeks, without adjusting their lifestyles much or at all beyond the oil.

But the boost didn't last beyond 14 days.

Even larger studies find similar effects -- a quick burst of weight loss early in the study, and then a leveling out that, by the conclusion, shows similar weight loss in groups of participants consuming coconut oil and other forms of triglycerides, including other MCTs.

Bond said studies showing a weight loss benefit are misleading, based on the size of most, but also because the short-term benefit of coconut oil will eventually level out. The potential for weight gain, she said, then increases because of the higher number of calories coconut oil and saturated fat contains than other forms of fat, such as lard, butter or beef tallow.

"I would not recommend a supplement of coconut oil," Bond says. "The bottom line is coconut oil contains 12 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, which is very close to the recommended limit of 15 grams per day for most people. It may be beneficial as a healthier substitute for trans fat in the food manufacturing industry, but in everyday cooking, it simply adds saturated fat and calories to the diet. A much better and healthier alternative is to use monounsaturated fat such as olive oil, which has proven health benefits."

Fife believes adding coconut oil to the diet helps improve the body, which is why doctors in eastern countries such Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, where alternative therapies are more accepted, have long used coconut oil as part of treatment for a long list of ailments.

In the case of weight loss, Fife said depending solely on coconut oil to do the work is the overhype on websites and by celebrities that makes people question whether it works. It works, he said, "as long as you continue to use the oil and eat a sensible diet."

"Weight loss with coconut oil is most successful when combined with a proper diet," Fife told UPI. "A low-carbohydrate or ketogenic diet is the most suitable. When coconut oil is combined with a high-carbohydrate diet it is far less effective as the excess carbs counteract some of the benefits of the oil."

Fife said he has seen a plethora of evidence showing that when combined with changes to diet and lifestyle, as well as appropriate therapy, claims about diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, glaucoma, Crohn's disease and others are true.

"The doubt among many doctors is that they don't study nutrition in medical school and know nothing about it," Fife said. "In medical school they learn about drugs, not diet. So their world focuses on drug therapy. To use diet and natural products is generally foreign to them."

Much of the research on coconut oil has been conducted outside the United States. A study conducted in Spain in 2015 with Alzheimer's disease patients who consumed about 2.7 tablespoons of coconut oil per day suggests it may improve cognitive ability.

This is in line with what Fife said is the misconception, sold by many websites, celebrities and doctors, some of whom he quotes on his own website, that coconut oil has "superpowers" or that it works "miracles."

While studies exists that show the possible benefits for adding coconut oil to the diet, concepts like oil pulling and oil detoxes are based less on evidence than on traditional practices and beliefs.

Oil pulling is a traditional folk remedy consisting of swishing coconut oil, though sunflower and sesame oils are also commonly used, in the mouth for 10 to 15 minutes, giving what are thought to be anti-stress and anti-disease benefits. These benefits purportedly include whitening teeth and cleaning the gums to curing cancer, among other ailments.

Coconut oil detoxing, methods of which can be found across the internet, suggest replacing all food with oil for a week to reduce cholesterol and blood sugar, as well as flush out infections.

Neither has much scientific support aside from anecdotes across the internet, and many experts and doctors say the oils have a positive effect on much of what users claim, though they link it to other practices.

Dr. Sanda Moldovan, a professor at the University of California Los Angeles, told Jezebel replacing mouthwash with coconut oil helps clean bacteria, which in turn helps the rest of the body, but studies have shown oil pulling to be far less effective at cleaning the mouth than mouthwash.

A study conducted at Meenakshi Ammal Dental College in India with 20 adolescent boys found chlorhexidine mouthwash was significantly more effective at clearing Streptococcus mutans from the mouth. The American Dental Association also points out reports of lipoid pneumonia and mineral oil aspiration appear in studies on oil pulling, suggesting the practice also has the risk for adverse health effects aside from diarrhea or an upset stomach caused by swallowing the oil.

Although he claims there are thousands of studies and even more anecdotal evidence, Fife's suggestion that coconut oil can help a wide range of health concerns somewhat echoes Moldovan's -- it might help.

Coconut oil may have the potential to help with disease, aging and overall health, but Fife also insists coconut oil will not "cure" anything. The "miracle," he conveys with somewhat softer language than most media and online accounts, is that it is a helper: "The oil improves the health of the body and the body does the rest."

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