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Claim: Coconut Oil Weight Loss is Due to Fewer Calories.
"Coconut oil can quite literally be called a low fat fat" -- Bruce Fife
Bruce Fife claims, in The Healing Miracles of Coconut Oil, that coconut oil products can help you lose weight.
In support of this claim, he makes the further claim that coconut oil has fewer calories, gram for gram, than other fats. Why does he say this?
Coconut oil is partly made up of medium chain fatty acids (MCFAs). Two of these, caprylic acid and capric acid, have only 8 and 10 carbon atoms respectively in their chains.
Stearic acid (one of the main fatty acids in beef), by contrast, has 18 carbons. This makes it a long chain fatty acid (LCFA).
Now most fats are 9 calories per gram, right? Not these MCFAs. A mixture of caprylic and capric acid may have only 6.8 calories per gram.
Well, that's great. This must be what Fife is talking about. If we eat coconut oil, we should get maybe 25% fewer calories than we would if we eat other fats. Right?
Not so fast. Coconut oil is not made up of just these MCFAs. It is made up of other kinds of fatty acids, too, including other saturated fats, some monounsaturated oils, and some polyunsaturated oils.
Overall, coconut oil, by Fife's own accounting, has only 2.56% fewer calories than other common sources of fat. So if other sources of fat yield 9 calories per gram, coconut oil should still provide nearly 8.8 calories per gram.
But that's still not bad. If you eat 2,000 calories a day, and 50% of those are fat (not uncommon on a low carb diet), then 1000 calories come from fat. If you make all of your fat coconut oil, then you should save about 25.6 calories a day.
That could mean an extra pound of weight loss every four to five months. Not bad, when added to the pound a week you already expect to lose on a low carb diet, but certainly nothing to write home about either.
[Here is a question, though. I wonder a little if our bodies try to make up for fewer calories by making us want to eat more. It's good that Fife cites studies that support the idea that replacing other fats with coconut oil products really leads to weight loss. I don't know if these were conducted with or without artificial portion control, though.]
Claim: Coconut Oil Weight Loss is Due to the Unusual Metabolic Effects of Coconut Oil.
Fife argues that coconut oil products will help you lose weight, and his second reason for this is that MCFAs are treated differently in our bodies than other fats.
Unfortunately, Fife starts from a dubious premise. He parrots the common view that fat in our diets will make us fat. He writes, "As long as we get enough [calories?] to satisfy energy needs, fat in our food always ends up as fat in our cells."
But this claim surely has to be qualified.
When lipolytic (fat burning) hormones, such as HGH and glucagon, predominate in the blood stream, dietary fat will not be stored. And that is what happens on a low-carb diet. In the presence of lipogenic (fat storing) hormones, such as insulin, that's when excess fat will be stored.
In short, a better thing to say is that fat makes you fat, IF EATEN WITH CARBS. But Fife can be forgiven for the oversight, since most Americans eat plenty of carbs.
Let's see how Fife argues from there. He writes: "MCFA, however, are digested and utilized differently. They are not packaged into lipoproteins and do not circulate in the bloodstream like other fats, but are sent directly to the liver where they are immediately converted into energy -- just like carbohydrates" [emphasis mine].
A big question at this point has to come to the mind of any low carber. If MCFAs are treated like carbohydrates, is it possible that they would raise insulin levels, like carbohydrates do?
I do not know the answer to this yet (I'll keep my eyes out for pertinent empirical studies or physiological explanations, though).
In Fife's defense, he does cite several studies that he says show a loss of body weight with increased use of MCFAs.
So perhaps the answer to the insulin question turns out to be "no", though it would be nice to have this confirmed specifically.
Claim: Coconut Oil Weight Loss Comes from Thermogenesis
Finally, Fife argues that Coconut oil weight loss comes from the thermogenic nature of coconut oil.
Metabolizing food produces heat. And heat requires the burning of calories. So the more heat that is produced metabolizing food, the more calories that are "wasted" (which, remember, is what we want) in heat production.
Protein is known to be highly thermogenic. But Fife claims that coconut oil is even more thermogenic than protein.
Fife cites a study that shows that a high calorie diet (3,000 calories? He doesn't say. Maybe I'll dig out the original study sometime.) with 40% of calories coming from MCFAs allows you to burn an extra 120 calories a day. Now we're up to an extra pound per month! That's a little better.
But wait. This contrasts with the thermogenic effect of LCFAs in a diet, with 40% of calories coming from these, which has a thermogenic effect of 66 calories a day. So the difference is 54 calories a day. (Bummer, that takes us down to only 1 pound every 70 days or so).
Another study compared single meals of 400 calories, and showed that MCFAs were three times as thermogenic as LCFAS.
Conclusions about Coconut Oil Weight Loss
Fife has made an interesting case. He claims that coconut oil will help you lose weight because:
I've kind of downplayed the number of calories burned. When you combine the calories lost due to the fact that coconut oil has 2.56% fewer calories, and the extra calories burned through thermogenesis, coconut oil should help you lose an extra pound every two months, if Fife is right.
That adds up to 6 pounds per year. That can be quite significant, especially if you're someone who has been gaining 6 pounds per year!
There are some questions remaining in my mind, but I was moved enough by Fife's argument to go out and try to buy some coconut oil.
I had to search pretty hard, though. I wound up buying it in the beauty section of a health food store. It turns out that the coconut oil face cream is just coconut oil, and is perfectly edible -- at least the jar I bought was.
The "oil" is solid at room temperature (unless room temperature is 90 degrees like it is as I write this -- whew! I'm looking at a jar of liquid face cream!)
Warning: I don't think it tastes very good plain. It leaves a little bit of an after taste in my mouth.
But it actually tastes all right if you dip shrimp in it (though I still prefer melted butter), and I'm sure it's great for baking and frying, though I haven't done this yet.
You can buy coconut oil products online, and this might be the way to go.
Is coconut oil a miracle oil? Probably not? Can it hurt to add it to your diet? Probably not. Can it help you lose weight? I guess you'll have to try it and see.
Takeaway question: If coconut oil is so good for weight loss, why do Polynesian women have such wonderfully curvy bodies?
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