Top 10 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is widely marketed as a "superfood."
The unique combination of fatty acids in coconut oil could have positive effects on your health, which may include encouraging fat loss, improving heart health, and boosting brain function.
This article discusses the evidence behind 10 possible health benefits of coconut oil.
1. Coconut Oil Contains Healthy Fatty Acids
Coconut oil is high in certain saturated fats. These fats have different effects in the body compared with most other dietary fats.
The fatty acids in coconut oil can encourage the body to burn fat, and they provide quick energy to the body and brain. They also raise HDL (good) cholesterol in the blood, which may help to reduce heart disease risk.
When you eat MCTs, they tend to go straight to the liver. The body uses them as a quick source of energy or turns them into ketones.
Coconut oil is high in fats called medium-chain triglycerides or MCTs, which the body metabolizes differently than most other fats. MCTs are responsible for many of the health benefits of coconut oil.
2. Eating Coconut May Benefit Heart Health
Coconut is an uncommon food in the Western world, with health-conscious people being the main consumers.
However, in some parts of the world, coconut — which is loaded with coconut oil — is a dietary staple that people have thrived on for generations.
A good example is the Tokelauans, a population who live in the South Pacific. According to a 1981 study, this population was getting over 60% of their calories from coconuts.
Researchers reported that this population had good health with very low rates of heart disease.
Another example of a population who ate a lot of coconut — along with tubers, fruit, and fish —and had little stroke or heart disease is the Kitavan population in Papua, New Guinea.
Several populations around the world have thrived for generations eating a substantial amount of coconut, and studies show they have good heart health.
3. MCTs Can Encourage Fat Burning
Obesity is one of the biggest health conditions affecting the Western world today.
While some people think obesity is just a matter of how many calories someone eats, the source of those calories is important, too. Different foods affect the body and hormones in different ways.
The MCTs in coconut oil can increase the number of calories the body burns compared to longer-chain fatty acids.
One study found that consuming 15–30 grams of MCTs per day increased 24-hour energy expenditure by 5%.
However, these studies didn't specifically look at the effects of coconut oil. They examined the health effects of MCTs — excluding lauric acid — which make up only about 14% of coconut oil.
There's currently no good evidence to say that eating coconut oil itself will increase the amount of energy a person uses up.
People should keep in mind that coconut oil is very high in calories and can easily lead to weight gain when they consume it in large amounts.
Research says that MCTs can increase the number of calories burned over 24 hours by as much as 5%. However, research has not shown that coconut oil itself has the same effect.
4. Coconut Oil Has Antimicrobial Effects
Twelve-carbon lauric acid makes up about 50% of the fatty acids in coconut oil.
When the body digests lauric acid, it forms a substance called monolaurin. Both lauric acid and monolaurin can kill harmful pathogens, such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
For example, test tube studies show that these substances can help to kill the bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, which causes staph infections, and the yeast Candida albicans, a common source of yeast infections in humans.
There's also some evidence that using coconut oil as a mouthwash, a process called oil pulling, could benefit oral hygiene, though researchers consider the evidence weak.
There's no evidence that coconut oil reduces the risk for the common cold or other internal infections.
Using coconut oil as a mouthwash could help to prevent infections in the mouth, but researchers need more evidence before they can make strong claims.
5. MCTs Can Reduce Hunger
One interesting feature of MCTs is that they can reduce hunger.
This may be related to the way the body metabolizes fats, because ketones can reduce a person's appetite.
In one study, researchers fed varying amounts of MCTs and LCTs to 6 healthy men. The men who ate the most MCTs ate fewer calories per day.
Another study in 14 healthy men reported that those who ate the most MCTs at breakfast ate fewer calories at lunch.
These studies were small and had a very short timescale. If this effect were to persist over the long term, it could lead to reduced body weight over several years.
Although coconut oil is one of the richest natural sources of MCTs, there's no evidence that coconut oil intake reduces appetite more than other types of oils.
In fact, one study has reported that coconut oil is less satiating than MCT oil.
MCTs can significantly reduce appetite, which may lead to reduced body weight over the long term.
6. MCTs May Reduce Seizures
Researchers are currently studying the ketogenic diet (very low in carbs, very high in fats) to treat various disorders.
The best known therapeutic use of this diet is treating drug-resistant epilepsy in children.
The diet dramatically reduces the rate of seizures in children with epilepsy, even those who haven't had success with multiple different types of drugs. Researchers aren't sure why.
Reducing carbohydrate intake and increasing fat intake leads to greatly increased concentrations of ketones in the blood.
Because the MCTs in coconut oil get transported to the liver and turned into ketones, healthcare professionals may use a modified keto diet that includes MCTs and a more generous carbohydrate allowance to induce ketosis and help treat epilepsy.
The MCTs in coconut oil can increase blood concentration of ketone bodies, which can help reduce seizures in children with epilepsy.
7. Coconut Oil Can Raise HDL Cholesterol
Coconut oil contains natural saturated fats that increase HDL (good) cholesterol in the body. They may also help turn LDL (bad) cholesterol into a less harmful form.
By increasing HDL, many experts believe that coconut oil could be good for heart health compared to many other fats.
In one study in 40 women, coconut oil reduced total and LDL (bad) cholesterol while increasing HDL compared to soybean oil.
Another study involving 116 adults showed that following a diet program that included coconut oil raised levels of HDL (good) cholesterol in people with coronary artery disease.
A few studies have shown that coconut oil can raise blood levels of HDL (good) cholesterol, which is linked to improved metabolic health and a lower risk of heart disease.
8. Coconut Oil Can Protect the Skin, Hair, and Teeth
Coconut oil has many uses that have nothing to do with eating it.
Many people are using it for cosmetic purposes to improve the health and appearance of their skin and hair.
Studies show that coconut oil can improve the moisture content of dry skin, and it can also reduce the symptoms of eczema.
Coconut oil can also protect against hair damage. One study shows that it may work as a weak sunscreen, blocking about 20% of the sun's ultraviolet rays.
Oil pulling, which involves swishing coconut oil around the mouth like mouthwash, can kill some of the harmful bacteria in the mouth. This may improve dental health and reduce bad breath, though more research is needed.
People can apply coconut oil to their skin, hair, and teeth. Studies suggest it works as a skin moisturizer, protects against skin damage, and improves oral health.
9. MCTs Can Boost Brain Function in Alzheimer's Disease
Alzheimer's disease is the most common cause of dementia. It usually affects older adults.
In people with Alzheimer's disease, the brain's ability to use glucose for energy is reduced.
Researchers have suggested that ketones can provide an alternative energy source for these malfunctioning brain cells to reduce symptoms of Alzheimer's disease.
The authors of a 2006 study reported that consuming MCTs improved brain function in people with milder forms of Alzheimer's disease.
However, research is still early, and there's no evidence to suggest that coconut oil itself helps with Alzheimer's disease.
Early studies suggest that MCTs can increase blood levels of ketones, supplying energy for the brain cells of people with Alzheimer's disease and relieving symptoms.
10. Coconut Oil May Help Reduce Harmful Abdominal Fat
Given that some of the fatty acids in coconut oil can reduce appetite and increase fat burning, evidence suggests that it can also help you to lose weight.
Abdominal fat, or visceral fat, lodges in the abdominal cavity and around organs. MCTs appear to be especially effective at reducing belly fat compared to LCTs.
Abdominal fat is the most harmful type and has links with many chronic diseases.
Waist circumference is an easy, accurate marker for the amount of fat in the abdominal cavity.
In a study of 40 women with abdominal obesity, those who took 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of coconut oil per day had a significant reduction in both BMI and waist circumference over 12 weeks.
Another study in 20 males with obesity noted a reduction in waist circumference of 1.1 inches (2.86 cm) after 4 weeks of taking 2 tablespoons (30 mL) of coconut oil per day.
Coconut oil is still high in calories so people should use it sparingly. Replacing some of your other cooking fats with coconut oil could have a small weight loss benefit, but the evidence is inconsistent overall.
The Bottom Line
If you want to buy coconut oil, there's an excellent selection online with thousands of customer reviews. It's also available in most health food stores.
In order to get the potential health benefits outlined in the article, make sure to choose organic, virgin coconut oil rather than refined versions.
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In celebration of Earth Day, a star-studded cast is giving fans a rare glimpse into the secret lives of some of the planet's most majestic animals: whales. In "Secrets of the Whales," a four-part documentary series by renowned National Geographic Photographer and Explorer Brian Skerry and Executive Producer James Cameron, viewers plunge deep into the lives and worlds of five different whale species.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b102b19b2719f50272ab718c44703dd0"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/xOySOlB78dM?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Herring are a primary food source for Norway's orcas. Luis Lamar / National Geographic for Disney+
Belugas are extremely social creatures with a varied vocal range. Peter Kragh / National Geographic for Disney+
A Southern Right whales is pictured in the accompanying book, "Secrets of the Whales." Brian Skerry / National Geographic
The coronavirus has isolated many of us in our homes this year. We've been forced to slow down a little, maybe looking out our windows, becoming more in tune with the rhythms of our yards. Perhaps we've begun to notice more, like the birds hopping around in the bushes out back, wondering (maybe for the first time) what they are.
A Coeligena helianthea hummingbird is photographed during a birdwatching trail at the Monserrate hill in Bogota on November 11, 2020. Colombia is the country with the largest bird diversity in the world, home to about 1,934 different bird species, a fifth of the total known. JUAN BARRETO / AFP / Getty Images
1. Choosing the Right Binoculars<p>Binoculars are a relatively indispensable tool for most birders – but, for those just starting out, it might not yet be worth the several-hundred-dollar investment. If you aren't able to scour the attics of friends or borrow a pair from a fellow bird watcher, some local birding and naturalist groups have <a href="https://vashonaudubon.org/all-about-vashon-birds/binoculars-check-out/" target="_blank">binocular loaning programs</a> for members, allowing you to plan ahead for a day (or week) of birding.</p><p>When you're ready to take the plunge, choosing a pair or binoculars should take some careful deliberation based on your needs and preferences; some <a href="https://www.birdwatchersdigest.com/bwdsite/explore/optics/top-10-tips-buying-binoculars-bird-watching.php" target="_blank">major considerations</a> might include size, ease of use, <a href="https://www.rei.com/learn/expert-advice/binoculars.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">magnification</a>, and price. While professional binoculars can easily run north of $1,000, there are plenty of perfectly suitable entry-level binoculars under $200. You might not get the perfect precision and clarity of more elite models, but a less expensive pair will allow you to strengthen your birding skills while deciding if you're interested in investing in a premium pair.</p><p>For a budget-friendly option, check out resale options on eBay, Facebook marketplace, or neighborhood yard sales: you might find a nicer pair whose retail price isn't within your budget.</p>
2. Know What Birds Are in Your Area<p>When I began to pay more attention to the birds just outside my apartment building, I started to learn what species have always been around me: European starlings, house sparrows, blue jays, black capped chickadees, and the occasional red-bellied woodpecker. They had always been there, but I hadn't ever taken the time to identify them. Once you learn to <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/get-know-these-20-common-birds_" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recognize common birds</a> in your area, you'll be able to identify the typical species right outside your window and in your community. Of course, permanent residential birds in your neighborhood will <a href="https://nestwatch.org/learn/focal-species/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">vary by region</a>, as will those migrating through it.</p>
3. Get Out and Explore<p>Venturing elsewhere might allow you to spot some different species beyond those frequenting your backyard. Anywhere with water or greenery offers a place for birding; as an urbanite myself, I've found that even small- and mid-sized parks in New York City allow me to find more elusive birds (although Central Park takes the crown for an afternoon of urban birding).</p><p>If you are able to travel a bit further from home, <a href="https://www.fws.gov/refuges/" target="_blank">national wildlife refuges</a> and <a href="https://www.americasstateparks.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">state/national parks</a> are excellent places to explore bird habitats and perhaps log some less-common sightings. The American Birding Association also lists <a href="https://www.aba.org/aba-area-birding-trails/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">birding trails by state</a>, and Audubon and BirdLife International identify <a href="https://www.audubon.org/important-bird-areas" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Important Bird Areas (IBAs)</a> across the country – important bird habitats and iconic places that activists are fighting to protect – where birders can spot birds of significance.</p>
4. Finding a Bird: Stop, Look, Listen, Repeat<p>The National Audubon Society recommends the "<a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-find-bird" target="_blank">stop, look, listen, repeat</a>" mantra when seeking and identifying birds.</p><p>First and foremost, spotting birds requires attention. Stopping – getting out of the car, pausing on the sidewalk, trail, or in the backyard to look up – is the most important step.</p><p>When looking for birds, try to avoid gazing wildly around; rather, scan your surroundings, focusing on any odd shapes or shadows, trying to think about where a bird might perch (power lines, fence posts, branches), or keep an eye on the sky for flying eagles and hawks. In open areas like fields and beaches, you might have a more panoramic view, and can take in different sections of the landscape at a time. Look around with the naked eye before reaching for the binoculars to hone in.</p><p>While it can be hard to sift through the noise, listening for birds is perhaps an even more important element of bird watching than looking. Once you spend more time in the field, you'll be able to parse apart the racket and identify specific species, especially aided by Audubon's Bird Guide app or by learning from their <a href="https://www.audubon.org/section/birding-ear" target="_blank">Birding by Ear series</a>.</p><p>Repeat this pattern as you continue on your way, stopping to look and listen for birds as you go, rather than waiting for them to come to you. </p>
5. Identification<p>When you head out for a day of bird watching – especially when you're hoping to spot some new species – you'll want to be armed with the tools to identify what you see. <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/how-identify-birds" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Major considerations when identifying birds</a> are their group (such as owls, hawks, or sparrow-like birds), size and shape, behavior, voice, field marks, season, and habitat.</p><p>The <a href="https://www.sibleyguides.com/about/the-sibley-guide-to-birds/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sibley Guide to Birds</a> and the <a href="https://www.hmhbooks.com/shop/books/peterson-field-guide-to-birds-of-north-america-second-edition/9781328771445" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Peterson Field Guide</a> are widely considered the best books for identifying birds in North America, although many <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/what-bird-guide-best-you" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">specialized guides</a> focus on specific species or regions as well.</p><p>Plenty of <a href="https://blog.nature.org/science/2013/05/27/boucher-bird-blog-apps-smart-birder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">bird identification apps</a> have popped up in recent years – including National Geographic Birds, Sibley eGuide to Birds, iNaturalist, Merlin Bird ID, and Birdsnap – which are basically a <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/the-best-birding-apps-and-field-guides" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">field guide in your pocket</a>. I'm partial to the Audubon Bird Guide, which allows users to filter by common identifiers, including a bird's habitat, color, activity, tail shape, and general type, adding them all to a personal map to view your sightings.</p>
6. Recording Your Sightings<p><span>As you deepen your commitment to birding, you might join the community of birders that track and quantify their sightings, building their </span><a href="https://www.thespruce.com/what-birds-count-on-a-life-list-386704#:~:text=A%20life%20list%20is%20a,which%20birds%20you%20have%20seen." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">life list</a><span>.</span></p><p>While a standard notebook noting the date, species name, habitat, vocalizations, or any other data you wish to include will suffice, some birders opt for a more <a href="https://www.riteintherain.com/no-195-birders-journal" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">structured birder's journal</a> with pre-determined fields to record your encounters, take notes, draw sketches, etc.</p><p>Many birders also choose to record their sightings online and in shared databases (which include many of the field guide apps), often pinpointing them on a map for others to view. Launched by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon, <a href="https://ebird.org/home" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird is one of the largest databases and citizen science projects around birding</a>, where hundreds of thousands of birders enter their sightings, and users can explore birds in regions and hotspots around the world. Users can also record their sightings on the <a href="https://apps.apple.com/us/app/ebird/id988799279" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eBird app</a>.</p>
7. Attracting Birds to Your Own Yard<p>Feeding birds is a common phenomenon: more than 40% of Americans maintain a birdfeeder to attract birds and watch them feast.</p><p>Not all birdfeed is created equal, however. Many commercial varieties are mostly made with "fillers" (oats, red millet, etc.) that birds will largely leave untouched. After researching what birds to expect in your area – and which ones you want to attract – you can create your own birdfeed with <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/types-of-bird-seed-a-quick-guide/?pid=1142" target="_blank">seeds that will appeal to them</a>.</p><p>Beyond filling a birdfeeder, <a href="https://www.ecowatch.com/eco-friendly-lawn-2651194858.html" target="_self">transforming your yard into an eco-friendly oasis</a> is by far the best way to attract birds. Choosing to forgo mowing your lawn, planting native flowers and grasses, and ditching the pesticides will bring back the bugs that birds feed on, and provide a safe haven in which birds can happily live and eat.</p><p>While it's widely considered acceptable – and even beneficial – to feed birds with appropriate seeds, communal birdfeeders often <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/to-feed-or-not-feed" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">foster unlikely interactions between different species</a>, who can then transmit harmful diseases and parasites to one another. Maintaining several bird feeders with different types of seeds might keep different species from coming into contact, and feeders can be <a href="https://www.allaboutbirds.org/news/how-to-clean-your-bird-feeder/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cleaned to prevent the spread of infection</a>.</p>
8. Inclusivity and Anti-Racism in the Birding Community<p>Like all outdoor activities and areas of scientific study, birding communities are subject to racist and discriminatory ideologies. Black birders have long experienced discrimination and underrepresentation in outdoor spaces. The work of organizations like the <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdersfund/" target="_blank">Black & Latinx Birders Fund</a>, <a href="https://www.instagram.com/birdability/" target="_blank">Birdability</a>, and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/feministbirdclub/" target="_blank">Feminist Bird Club</a> highlight the contributions and importance of birders of color, birders with disabilities, and women and LGBTQ+ birders to the birding community, as do activists and naturalists like <a href="https://www.instagram.com/hood__naturalist/" target="_blank">Corina Newsome</a> and <a href="https://www.instagram.com/tykeejames/" target="_blank">Tykee James</a>. The work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a>, <a href="https://camilledungy.com/publications/" target="_blank">Camille Dungy</a> (read her poem <a href="https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/58363/frequently-asked-questions-10" target="_blank">Frequently Asked Questions: 10</a>), and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start.</p><p>Getting involved in birding means educating ourselves on these issues and taking meaningful action; the work of <a href="https://www.audubon.org/news/its-bird-new-comic-written-central-park-birder-christian-cooper" target="_blank">Christian Cooper</a> and <a href="https://orionmagazine.org/article/9-rules-for-the-black-birdwatcher/" target="_blank">J. Drew Lanham</a> – including his essay "<a href="https://lithub.com/birding-while-black/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Birding While Black</a>" – are a great place to start. Just as birders are activists for protecting habitats and natural areas, we must also be active and aware of inclusivity in these spaces.</p>
9. Get Involved<p>To learn from and enjoy the company of other birders, check out local birding groups in your area to join. Many Audubon chapters host trips, meetings, and bird walks for members. The American Birding Association even maintains a <a href="https://www.aba.org/festivals-events/" target="_blank">directory of birding festivals</a> across the country.</p><p>Volunteering for birds is also a great way to meet other birders and take action for birds in your community; local organizations might have opportunities for assisting with habitat restoration or helping at birding centers.</p><p>Like all wildlife, climate change and habitat destruction threaten the livelihood of birds, eliminating their breeding grounds and food sources. A <a href="https://www.audubon.org/climate/survivalbydegrees" target="_blank">2019 report released by the National Audubon Society</a> found that two-thirds of North American birds may face extinction if global temperatures rise 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. Staying informed about and taking action for legislation designed to protect birds and our climate – such as the recent <a href="https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/5552/text" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Migratory Bird Protection Act</a> – is important for ensuring a livable future for wildlife and humans alike.</p><p><em>Linnea graduated from Skidmore College in 2019 with a Bachelor's degree in English and Environmental Studies, and now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Most recently, Linnea worked at Hunger Free America, and has interned with WHYY in Philadelphia, Saratoga Living Magazine, and the Sierra Club in Washington, DC. </em><em>Linnea enjoys hiking and spending time outdoors, reading, practicing her German, and volunteering on farms and gardens and for environmental justice efforts in her community. Along with journalism, she is also an essayist and writer of creative nonfiction.</em></p>
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