Is Coconut Oil the Fat Burner It’s Cracked up to Be?

Vanessa Raymond Fact Checked
Coconut cracked open
© Juan Moyano / Stocksy United

Look “coconut oil” up online, and you’ll find a myriad of suggested uses, from adding coconut oil to your daily smoothie to eating it straight from the jar. Followers of Whole30, paleo and keto diets and clean eaters, too, rave about its health benefits, versatility and fat-burning superpowers.

The idea that you can melt off pounds by eating high-fat foods has a way of capturing the public’s imagination. The idea got a boost when a 2003 study found that a group of men fed a diet containing medium-chain triglycerides — that coconut oil happens to have a lot of — saw their overall body fat decrease. The researchers thought that this might be because they appeared to burn fat at a higher rate.

“But not so fast,” says Vanessa Imus, a registered dietitian at the Weight Loss Management Center at University of Washington Medical Center–Roosevelt.

The fat that makes you thin

There are holes that can be punched into the eating-coconut-fat-can-make-you-thin premise. Participants in that 2003 study were fed medium-chain triglycerides — something found neither in nature nor on the grocery store shelf. (“Medium-chain” refers to the number of carbon atoms that comprise the tail or “chain” of the fatty acid.)

And results of a related study with women showed some increase in fat burning and energy expenditure but no change in body composition.

“There are some studies that suggest coconut oil has a better metabolic effect and others that show no difference. The research is still split,” says Imus.

There’s a long history of supposed fat-burners like grapefruit or apple cider vinegar that didn’t pan out in long-term studies; there are as of yet no such long-term studies on coconut oil.

The jury may still be out, but that hasn’t stopped bloggers from milking the coconut oil trend for all it's worth.

The eating habits that make you healthy

“People hear about something like this and go out and buy all these pills and supplements and they’re adding to what is already in their diet instead of just replacing it,” says Imus.

What she recommends instead is eating for the long haul. That means eating a balanced diet of unprocessed whole foods, including a variety of high-fiber vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, seeds and lean proteins.

“Coconut oil has high levels of calories and saturated fat and it’s never a good idea to overdo those. You don’t want to add more saturated fat to what is already in your diet,” says Imus.

But she does have a few tips on how you can integrate coconut oil into your diet in a nutritionally sound way.

Replace some of your existing saturated fat consumption with coconut oil. Coconut oil is a good replacement for butter or shortening. Use it to grease your muffin pans, put on your toast or roast your vegetables.

Use coconut oil to cook at high heats. Coconut oil can add a nice flavor to a stir fry and holds up well in high heat cooking. It doesn’t oxidize like a lot of other oils will at high temperatures.

Choose unrefined coconut oil, sometimes also called “virgin” or “pure.” Like it sounds, unrefined coconut oil has no additives and is extracted from fresh coconuts. So if you do decide to go coconut, go unrefined.

But when it comes to trying to use coconut oil to lose weight, meet with your local dietitian for healthier, more sustainable ideas, says Imus.

“Think of coconut oil like you would a butter,” says Imus. “You’re probably not going to eat a stick of butter every morning with the idea that it will help you burn fat.”