To understand the powerful fat loss effects of coconut oil, we must first understand medium-chain triglycerides and then the cellular process of fat burning. Don’t worry, this will be pain-free and you’ll come out the other side that much more equipped to teach your friends about the weight loss benefits of coconut oil.
Triglycerides are our main storage fat, and they contain a glycerol backbone with three fatty acids. Triglycerides with fatty acid tails of 6-12 carbons are called medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
The most common sources of MCTs are palm kernel oil and coconut oil. Palm kernel oil is potentially less friendly to the environment and goes through considerably more processing than coconut oil, if that’s something you’re concerned with. But there is also a specific MCT oil on the market. Debate exists between the superiority of MCT oil versus coconut oil, the former using the claim that their MCTs are more concentrated, but that’s if you don’t count the beneficial lauric acid found exclusively in coconut oil.
Fat content of coconut oil
On that note, it’s worth mentioning the types of fatty acids in coconut oil are caproic, caprylic, capric, lauric, myristic, palmitic, and stearic acid. I’ve only listed the saturated fats here, because the unsaturated fats exist in negligible amounts. And don’t get too hung up on the saturated fat bogeyman. Rest assured knowing it’s the type of saturated fat that is cause for concern. The saturated fats in coconut oil are largely considered heart-healthy and, as you will see, weight loss-friendly.
Lipolysis versus oxidation
As I mentioned in the last article, there are two steps to fat loss: fat mobilization (called lipolysis) and fat burning (oxidation). Increasing lipolysis can be good in the correct context, but if we are concerned with fat loss, the important next step is that of actual chemical combustion. It’s not enough to kick the fatty acids out of the fat cell and into the blood since they can always be recycled back into the cell or, worse yet, sit around in the bloodstream and lead to inflammation and markers of metabolic syndrome. Not good. But I digress.
CD36, the club bouncer
When we burn fat, we must first send the now mobilized fatty acid into the mitochondria. There is an inner and outer membrane to the mitochondria, to concentrate metabolic byproducts and tightly regulate molecules coming in and out. There are important protein channels, such as carnitine palmitoyltransferase I (CPT1) and II (CPT2), and fatty acid translocase/cluster of differentiation 36 (FAT/CD36), which are basically the bouncers to the fats trying to get into Club Mitochondria and get (literally) burnt.
Under normal circumstances, when we eat carbohydrates, and insulin levels subsequently increase, these mediators of fat uptake are inhibited.2 This makes sense because the body knows it has glucose available now and does not need to be sending fatty acids into the mitochondria for oxidation.
However, the interesting property of medium-chain fatty acids is that they bypass CPT1 and CD36.3 It has been hypothesized that this is why MCTs are associated with greater weight loss. Just like how the post-workout chocolate milk, you may recall, elicited an insulin spike that didn’t shut off fat burning, so too do coconut oil and other MCTs when insulin levels are high.
In plain English
In most situations, when we eat carbs, the body knows it has available energy and does not need to keep burning fat. But because MCTs, such as palm kernel and coconut oil, don’t rely on a certain membrane channel that insulin acts on, they can continue to be burned in the presence of insulin.
What do the studies say?
Examine.com concludes that coconut oil can lead to a greater degree of weight loss than an isocaloric amount of longer chain fatty acids.1 Specific trials have determined coconut oil can help reduce insulin resistance, waist circumference (fats stored viscerally are the hardest to mobilize), inflammation, and other benefits outside the scope of this article.4
Until next time
I hope this two-part series on my two favorite fat loss foods was helpful to you, not only so that you can include them in your diet but so you can understand these concepts and become a more learned consumer of nutrition science. Remember that the term “fat loss foods” does not imply that eating them will always elicit fat loss. We are working within the bigger picture here, which is that an energy imbalance, along with some metabolic markers, determines what happens to your body fat. We cannot judge how much fat you will lose by acute instances of metabolically advantageous biochemical phenomena, but we can incorporate these foods into an already well-rounded diet to maximize our results. If you need help in figuring that diet out, TFN offers effective, client-centered solutions via our Nutrition Counseling service.
1. Frank K, Patel K, Lopez G, Willis B. Coconut Oil Research Analysis [Online]. Examine.com: 2017. https://examine.com/supplements/coconut-oil/.
2. Luiken JJFP, Dyck DJ, Han X-X, Tandon NN, Arumugam Y, Glatz JFC, Bonen A. Insulin induces the translocation of the fatty acid transporter FAT/CD36 to the plasma membrane. Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 282: E491–495, 2002.
3. Odle J. New Insights into the Utilization of Medium-Chain Triglycerides by the Neonate: Observations from a Piglet Model. J Nutr 127: 1061–1067, 1997.
4. Tsuji H, Kasai M, Takeuchi H, Nakamura M, Okazaki M, Kondo K. Dietary medium-chain triacylglycerols suppress accumulation of body fat in a double-blind, controlled trial in healthy men and women. J Nutr 131: 2853–2859, 2001.