Talk to some people and you may come away believing that adding coconut oil to your diet will turn you into a superhuman braniac immortal stud. The previously maligned oil is having a moment in the nutrition spotlight (and that’s on top of its reputation as an uber multitasking beauty product and a dental health heavyweight.)
It’s flying off the shelves at health food stores thanks in part to the fact that two polar-opposite but equally popular types of eaters are loving it: vegans and Paleos. Both avoid butter (something they can agree on!), and coconut oil is the perfect substitute.
So should you add it to your diet? Scientists, physicians, and nutritionists are not in agreement about whether there’s enough evidence to support downing it daily, but we tapped top New York nutritionist Sharon Richter, R.D. to walk you through some of the purported nutritional benefits:
Coconut oil’s fat content—it’s packed with lauric acid, a fatty acid made of medium chain triglycerides, or MCTs—is the centerpiece of why experts love (or hate) it. So if you just finished internalizing the “fat doesn’t make you fat” mantra in order to embrace omega 3s, get ready for another fat that wants your blessing. While lauric acid is saturated fat, not all saturated fats are the same, Richter says. “Saturated fats mostly come from animal products,” she says, which are made up of long-chain fatty acids known for artery-clogging. Lauric acid is metabolized faster in the body, and some small studies have shown it has positive effects on individuals’ cholesterol levels.
Weight loss and maintenance
Coconut oil’s MCTs have been linked to weight loss and maintenance in some small studies, like this one that showed benefits. But the body of research is not large, and critics say studies often compare it to other oils or butter, which makes it look good in comparison. Other small studies have shown it may suppress appetite, but again, the research is not conclusive.
Antibacterial and antiviral properties
Coconut oil is also said to be antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral, one reason many people use it for oil pulling, and why it may be good for your immune system, Richter says. “One study I found shows MCTs effectively destroyed viruses.”
The bottom line
“There’s not enough scientific evidence to support the major claims, but I always say everything in moderation,” Richter explains. “It’s probably not going to cure all of your ailments, but it definitely can be a better option than using butter. The main thing is that it’s not partially hydrogenated coconut oil, the really processed form of it. You want virgin, unrefined.” Write that one down. —Lisa Elaine Held