MadSci Network: Biochemistry

Re: can coconut oil promote weight loss?

Date: Fri Mar 19 15:38:52 2004
Posted By: Dian Dooley, , Associate Professor, Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Hawaii at Manoa
Area of science: Biochemistry
ID: 1076291228.Bc

Aloha, Kim,

     First, let me answer your main question about coconut oil promoting 
weight loss.  The answer is 'no.'  The only thing that promotes 
sustainable weight loss is cutting kilocalories (energy intake) or 
increasing exercise or both.  Actually, the best way to lose weight is to 
cut the calories a bit and increase exercise both...and to make permanent 
behavior changes in diet/exercise so you don't go back to living the way 
you did while you gained the weight.
     Now, on to your collary comments coconut oil being the 'fattiest,'the 
healthiest,' etc.  Neither descriptor really fits coconut oil (or any 
other oil, necessarily).  Let me use some of the information that I 
usually include in my 'Lipid' lecture for my introductory nutrition 
students, here at the University of Hawaii/Manoa, to explain why I have 
made those statements.
     Coconut oil is a liquid lipid.  Most of the fatty material in coconut 
oil is in the form of triglycerides, just as in all other vegetable oils 
and animal fats.  The chemical structure of triglycerides is one molecule 
of glycerol (-glyceride) with three fatty acids (tri-) hooked on.  Where 
coconut oil has sometimes gotten a 'bad rap' is that most of the fatty 
acids are what are called 'saturated'(chemically, where there are all 
single bonds between adjacent carbon atoms in the long-chained molecule).  
This type of fatty acids in diets seems to be related to a higher risk for 
developing one of a number of chronic diseases (like cardiovascular 
disease...heart attacks).  The saturated fatty acids, when they become 
part of the cell membrane and other cellular structures, seem to 
produce 'stiffer' membranes...less flexible.  The remainder of the fatty 
acids in coconut oil(about 10%) are either monounsaturated or 
polyunsaturated (chemically, where there are one or more double bonds 
between carbon atoms in the chain).
     Some other plant oils (olive oil, canola oil, corn oil, etc.) have 
much more of the mono/polyunsaturated fatty acids...and some research 
suggests that populations who use these types of lipids have less of a 
risk for developing some of the chronic these oils might be 
considered more healthful than coconut oil.  Also, unless you eat a lot of 
highly processed/fabricated foods OR belong to cultural groups (like 
Samoan and some other Pacific Island populations) who use a lot of coconut 
oil and other coconut products as part of their ethnic cuisine, most of us 
don't get a lot of coconut oil (or other tropical oils) in our food.
     As a Ph.D.-level nutritionist (and a real lover of food, too), I 
think all the emphasis on the KIND of lipid is a bit misplaced.  Lipids 
ARE one of the major classes of nutrients...we can't live/grow/reproduce 
without them in our diet.  However, since fat/oil all contains about 9 
kcal/g (as opposed to 4 kcal/g for each protein and carbohydrate), it is 
really easy to 'overeat' kilocalories when there is a lot of fat/oil in 
food or used in food preparation.  
     So, my take-home messages are:
     1.  Coconut oil in small amounts is fine;  there are other oils that 
might be more 'healthful' in the long-run, though.
     2.  Coconut oil is not the 'healthiest,' 'most 
nutritious,' 'fattiest,' etc.  AND it is not conducive to helping anyone 
lose weight!
     3.  Perhaps most importantly, be aware of where fat/oils are in your 
food, and enjoy those foods in moderation.  After all, it is the fat/oil 
that probably makes those foods taste so good, since fat/oil helps carry 
flavors/spices.  If you are trying to lose weight, one strategy that works 
for some people is to cut down on fatty foods a bit...chose leaner meats, 
lower-fat versions of dairy products, less butter/margarine on breads, and 
fewer rich, creamy sauces on those good carbohydrate sources, like pasta, 
spaghetti, and potatoes.

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