It seems a bit counter-intuitive that fat could actually aid in weight loss. But it’s true, coconut oil promotes weight loss and I’m going to tell you how. Let’s start by going over some of the basics that you likely learned in college biochemistry, if you took it, but may have have forgotten. Fats and oils are composed of fatty acids. There are really two different ways to characterize fatty acids. The first method is based on saturation, and is probably the one you are most familiar with. Most of you are acquainted with saturated or unsaturated fats and oils. The second way to classify a fatty acid is based on size or length of the fatty acid. There are short chain fatty acids (SCFA), medium chain fatty acids (MCFA), and long chain fatty acids (LCFA). Short chain fatty acids (SCFA) contain less than 6 carbon atoms, medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) have between 6-12 carbons, and long chain fatty acids (LCFA) have 14 or more carbon atoms. The reason fats are classified based on their length is because the size of the carbon chain influences the chemical and physical properties of the fatty acid.
Most of the fats and oils that you eat come from either plant or animal sources, all of which are composed of long chain fatty acids (LCFA). In fact, probably more than 98% of the dietary fat that humans consume is composed of LCFA. Coconut oil is really unique because it is primarily composed of medium chain fatty acids (MCFA), with lauric acid constituting approximately 47% of coconut oil. Here is where it gets important: medium chain fatty acids (MCFA) are metabolized very differently from long chain fatty acids (LCFA). First, I’ll explain how most dietary fats consisting of long chain fatty acids are digested and metabolized. Then I’ll inform you how medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil are digested and metabolized, pointing out the significance in the major differences.
Medium Chain Triglycerides Benefits
Long chain fatty acids (LCFA) found in plant and animal fat are not easily absorbed by the GI tract and require pancreatic enzymes and bile salts to break them down so that they can be absorbed by the intestine. Next, the long chain fatty acids are packaged into chylomicrons, which are lipoproteins that transport lipids throughout the body. The lipoproteins are transported through the lymphatic system then circulate through the bloodstream, where they deliver fat components to a variety of tissues, including adipose, cardiac and skeletal tissue. After the lipoproteins have uploaded their triglyceride components to these tissues, the left over lipoproteins are transported to the liver, where they are imported into the mitochondria of liver cells, using the carnitine palmitoyl transferase (CPT) machinery, and are finally oxidized for energy use (Life Sciences 62 (14): 1203-1215). This is how all saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and cholesterol that consists of long chain fatty acids (all of your dietary fat) is transported throughout the body.
In contrast, medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil are absorbed by the gastrointestinal tract (GI tract) with ease, they do not require any pancreatic enzymes to break them down, which means less work for your pancreas. Next, medium chain fatty acids are transported to the portal blood stream, directly to the liver, where they go directly into mitochondria independent of the carnitine palmitoyl transferase, and are immediately oxidized for energy. Medium chain fatty acids from coconut oil do not get packaged into lipoproteins, and do not get transported to a variety of tissues and are not stored as body fat, they go directly to the liver and are metabolized for energy (Life Sciences 62 (14): 1203-1215). The bottom line is that medium chain fatty acids from coconut oil produces almost exclusively energy, whereas, long chain fatty acids found in all other dietary fats produce body fat (and some energy).
Coconut Oil Boosts Energy
Because the medium chain fatty acids found in coconut oil are easily and rapidly transported into the mitochondria, unlike long chain fatty acids, they are immediately used for energy, resulting in a burst of energy and thermogenesis, which, subsequently, increases metabolism. Several animal studies and clinical studies have proven that ingestion of coconut oil increases metabolism and decreases body fat both in animal studies performed on mice, and humans. Rats that were fed a diet consisting of medium chain fatty acids had less subcutaneous fat, a visibly evident decrease in body fat, increased metabolism and increased thermogenesis (Lipids 22 (6): 442-444). The energy burst that is produced by medium chain fatty acids is also important for athletic endurance. In one study, researchers tested the physical endurance of mice that were fed medium chain fatty acids vs. those fed a diet high in long chain fatty acids for six weeks. The mice were subjected to a swimming endurance test, where they had to swim against a current, every other day. The mice that were fed medium chain fatty acids continually performed better then the others and displayed a much higher physical endurance (Journal of Nutrition 125 (3):531-9). These studies in mice provide us with evidence that medium chain fatty acids increase metabolism and promote the loss of fat while providing a burst of energy that increases physical endurance. Yes, this boost in energy means you feel less lethargic, and can help you feel less tired as you perform daily activities.
Coconut Oil Decreases Body Fat
Numerous studies have shown that coconut oil clearly has an effect in men and women very analogous to what has been demonstrated in other mammalian animal models: it increases metabolism and decreases overall body fat. For example, healthy men and women were administered either medium chain fatty acids or long chain fatty acids in addition to a diet similar in fat, protein, and carbohydrates for 12 weeks. Throughout the 12 weeks, individuals that took medium chain fatty acids had significantly less body weight and, specifically, body fat (The Journal of Nutrition 131 (11): 2853-2859). Studies have also shown that medium chain fatty acids also increase the oxidation of long chain fatty acids that are already in your body, tucked away in your lovehandles (International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders: Journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity 24 (9): 1158-1166). Similar to the animal studies, medium chain fatty acids also boost energy production by increasing thermogenesis, which speeds up metabolism in humans as well (Metabolism: Clinical and Experimental 38 (7): 641-648). In another study, people with high triglyceride levels were given medium chain fatty acids for eight weeks. In addition to decreasing body fat, their triglyceride levels were lowered by 14.5% (European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 63 (7): 879-886).
So just a quick refresher for those of you that lost focus:
- Coconut oil is metabolized by a different process than long chain fatty acids altogether, this process expedites use as energy instead of storage.
- Because the body has to preferentially burn the fat off, it ramps up the metabolism by increasing thermogenesis.
- This ramping up of the metabolism then proceeds to not only burn off coconut oil, but long chain fatty acids pre-existing the consumption of coconut oil.
- These effects have been demonstrated both in animal studies, and more importantly, human studies as well.
To reap the medium chain triglyceride benefits you simply need to change the type of oil you use to cook with to coconut oil. If you’re worried about the coconut taste, you can buy expeller pressed coconut oil, which has no coconut smell or flavor and is great for cooking. Also, because coconut oil is made up of medium chain fatty acids, it is a solid at temperatures below 76°F.