After being labeled as a “bad” saturated fat for years, coconut oil is enjoying a new resurgence in public opinion, with researchers touting it as one of those “wonder” foods with antibacterial, anti-fungal, and even fat-burning properties. If you haven’t jumped aboard the coconut oil bandwagon, here are eight reasons you should.
Coconut oil is a specific type of saturated fat called a medium-chain triglyceride. Compared with longer-chain triglycerides (like those in meats and dairy products), coconut oil's medium-chain triglycerides are more rapidly absorbed and utilized by the body’s cells, says Adriane Angarano, MS, CN, a Seattle-based functional and holistic nutritionist.
That means your cells' mitochondria—the cellular power plants—can produce more energy in the form of adenosine triphosphate, or ATP. And more cellular energy means that you have more energy all over, too.
Because medium-chain triglycerides enter those little cellular power plants so quickly, coconut oil also increase the cells’ ability to produce more ATP than normal. This in turn increases the body’s ability to burn more fat as fuel (a process called thermogenesis).
Plus, medium-chain triglycerides are also less likely to be stored as fat deposits—better known as the gut you've been trying to burn off and keep off.
Coconut oil is comprised of fatty acids, including lauric acid and caprylic acid. These fatty acids have anti-viral and anti-bacterial properites, says Angarano. This can help boost your immune system.
A study publiched in January 2015 found that coconut oil reduced the amount of free radicals (a marker of stress, which can decrease your immune system) in mice when they were placed in stressful situations.
Because coconut oil is a fat, adding it to a meal will slow down your body's digestion and absorption of the food. That quick trick lowers the overall glycemic load of whatever you’re eating, which means it helps even out your blood sugar level.
Lower glucose levels mean steadier energy levels and less likelihood of a blood sugar “crash” afterwards, which sometimes happens after a meal containing high-GI carbs. You know how tired you feel an hour after eating a bowl of pasta for lunch? Coconut oil can help prevent that feeling that you need to nap.
Coconut oil is an effective treatment for fungal and bacterial skin infections. A study published in the International Journal of Dermatology found that coconut oil applied to the skin was about twice as effective as mineral oil at treating atopic dermatitis, or eczema, a chronic skin condition that causes a painful red rash and itching.
Because coconut oil absorbs transdermally, or through the skin, it also makes a great moisturizer. What's more, its ability to reduce inflammation can mimimize the aging of your skin cells, says Andranaro—and that means a smoother complexion with fewer wrinkles.
Ever hear anyone talk about swishing coconut oil in their mouths? Sounds strage, but "oil pulling," as it's known, can help improve oral health. A study conducted earlier this year found that teens who used oil pulling as part of their overall dental hygiene had less plaque and less gingivitis or gum disease compared to before they started oil pulling.
You already probably know that carbs and protein have 4 calories per gram, and that fat contains 9 calories per gram. Well, that’s not exactly true. Medium-chain triglycerides provide about 10 percent fewer calories than other fats—like those in your burger and fries—so instead of providing 9 calories per gram, they provide about 8.3 calories per gram.
“They’re absorbed more efficiently and converted to fuel for cells faster than other fats,” explains Angarano. Your body uses coconut oil to produce cellular energy right away, rather than having to store it all. And over time, cooking with coconut oil instead of other fats will save a few calories, which may help you shed weight.
People who live in traditional cultures that haven’t adopted the Western diet and consume lots of coconut oil—like central American cultures—have lower rates of heart disease than those who eat less coconut oil, says Angarano.
And while coconut oil raises LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, it also raises HDL, or “good” cholesterol. It also seems to help improve overall heart health and lower your risk of cardiovascular disease.
You don’t need to consume a lot of coconut oil for health benefits, says Angarano. Include a tablespoon of coconut oil in your morning smoothie, sauté vegetables or protein with it, or use it on salad to reap its benefits.