Coconut oil: weight loss, endurance and performance uses

Rianne Costello MSc BSc (Hons) / Jul 13, 2016

Top Sports Nutritionist, Rianne Costello debunks some of the misconceptions about coconut oil, its uses, where we get it from, how it works for us and how we should look to be using this latest 'superfood'.

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What exactly is coconut oil and where does it come from?

Coconut oil is a form of fat or lipid known as a medium chain triglyceride (MCT). A medium chain triglyceride is a lipid whose fatty acid chain length ranges from 6-10 carbon atoms long. During digestion, MCT's are converted into medium chain fatty acids and are transported directly via the portal venous system (capillaries from the gut and spleen to capillaries of liver) instead of being transported in as chylomicrons in the lymphatic system, such as other fat types such as long chain triglycerides (LCT) (1).

Essentially - this means that MCT's are much more rapidly absorbed than LCT's. LCT's that you may be familiar with and most likely use regularly are vegetable oils such as sunflower oil and rapeseed oil.

As the MCT's are absorbed through a different system to that of LCT's - they bypass the peripheral tissues, such as adipose tissue (body fat), which makes them less likely to be stored as body fat and more likely to be used as readily available energy (1). 

In fact, for each 1g of MCT's, you get 8.3 kcal of energy compared to the 9 kcal per 1 g you get from LCT. When you add those kilocalories up over a period of time - that 'small' difference may make a big difference.

How should I use it?

Endurance performance and exercise

Before you get really excited and think that coconut oil may be the answer to reducing carbohydrates to fuel your performance - research would advise you to think twice.

Researchers got excited at the idea that coconut oil (MCT's) may be advantageous for sporting performance and thought maybe they were missing a trick. Their hypothesis was that coconut oil feeding could enhance endurance performance and could perhaps replace the heavily studied key macronutrient, carbohydrate. 

What they found was a mixed bag of results.... some researchers found endurance performance was enhanced (only with carbohydrate combined) (2) and others found that coconut oil fed in large doses (85 grams per hour) just made people ill (3). Unfortunately, for all of the research attempts in different dosages and feeding methods, the conclusions do not hold any promising benefits for advocating coconut oil over carbohydrates for athletes and endurance performance.

Weight loss

There is, however, a lot more promising evidence for coconut oil feeding for weight loss. Coconut oil has been found to increase satiety (feeling of feeling full) after consuming a meal, which in turn prevents people from snacking and reduces the amount people eat in later meals (1). Coconut oil has also been shown to increase fat oxidation (burning of body fat as an energy source) and therefore, positively influence a person's body composition (helping them lose weight) (1).

A study carried out in 2013 also showed how combining coconut oil with an active ingredient of chilli (caspian) helped increase post meal energy expenditure (another potential tool for weight loss) (5).

Rule of thumb.....

Moderation is always king! Our bodies were not designed to consume an excess of any one individual thing (that's the best part about being human and not a ruminant...or an animal that consumes grass and leaves), so always try to have a well-balanced diet and always consult a registered nutritionist like myself before testing out the latest media hype or 'superfood'!

How to potentially use coconut oil in your day to day nutrition:

  • Add a teaspoon to your morning coffee (something I do daily!)
  • Cooking your sweet potato fries in the oven with it
  • Adding it to your dinner after cooking it and adding some chilli for that increase in energy expenditure effect. Chilli feeding with coconut oil needs to be around 30 g to obtain the post-meal energy expenditure increase benefit.
  • Having a coconut oil feed in a meal or in your hot beverage and including an omega 3 rich fish meal to your day (i.e. salmon) or an omega 3 supplement to balance your blood lipid profile (cholesterol levels)

Did you also know...

  • Coconut oil also has anti-fungal benefits and can be rubbed on the body as a moisturiser!

 

References

1. Clegg, M.E (2010). Medium-chain triglycerides are advantageous in promoting weight loss although not beneficial to exercise performance. International Journal of Food sciences and Nutrition, 61(7), 653-679.

2. Angus, D.J., Hargreaves, M., Dancey, J. & Febbraio, M.A. (2000). Effect of carbohydrate or carbohydrate plus medium-chain triglyceride ingestion on cycling time trial performance. Journal of Applied Physiology, 88(1), 113-119

3. Jeukendrup, A.E., Thielen, J.J. Wagenmakers, A.J. Brouns, F., & Saris, W.H. (1998). Effect of medium-chain triglycerol and carbohydrate ingestion during exercise on substrate utilisation and subsequent cycling performance. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 67(3), 397-404.

4. Clegg, M.E., Golsorkhi, M., & Henry, C.J. (2013). Combined medium-chain triglyceride and chilli feeding increases diet-induced thermogenesis in normal-weight humans. European Journal of Nutrition, 52(6), 1579-1585.