Coconut oil vs. olive oil: which is better for you?

In the battle of the oils, Bupa Dietitian Rosalyn D'Angelo looks at whether coconut oil is healthier than olive oil. 

There’s a lot of love in the world for coconut oil, I even know people who consume it by the spoonful. So what I’m about to tell you may come across as a little controversial. 

As a dietitian, I’ve heard it all. I’ve read the research. It’s my job to be aware of all sides of the argument when it comes to nutrition. In this article, I’m going to provide you with the facts, the science, and the chemical makeup of the oils in question – so you can draw your own conclusions.

Similarities

Both coconut oil and olive oil contain the EXACT same amount of calories per tablespoon.

Both coconut oil and olive oil’s calories come 100% from fat - there’s no sugar, carb, protein or anything else here. Just fat.

Because of this, eating a tablespoon of coconut oil and a tablespoon of olive oil will fill you up in the EXACT same way - if you’re into eating oil off a spoon.

So now that we understand that both coconut oil and olive oil are 100% fat, we need to look at the TYPE of fat that is in each of them.

Saturated vs. unsaturated

For those of you who were as ‘lucky’ as me to study organic chemistry and biochemistry at university, you’ll understand that fats are just long chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms.

In a saturated fat there are no double bonds, which means there is the maximum possible number of hydrogens attached. Hence why it’s called ‘saturated’. In an unsaturated fat, because there is at least one double bond - there are less hydrogens. Hence why it’s ‘unsaturated’.

These two types of fats act differently in the body.

We know that replacing saturated fats with unsaturated fats reduces our risk of heart disease. But replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates does not appear to reduce our risk. So, if you cut out butter and replace it with jam - that doesn’t seem to help. But, swap butter for avocado or a natural nut spread? Now you’re getting somewhere.

olive oil and pasta and olives

Differences

Coconut oil is about 84% saturated fat. The main saturated ‘bad’ fat is called ‘lauric’ acid.

Olive oil however, is only 13% saturated fat. A whopping 71% of olive oil is monounsaturated fat – aka ‘good fat.’ The main good fat is ‘oleic’ acid. 

In comparison, butter is 51% saturated fat, and palm oil is 79% saturated fat. So coconut oil is by far the most saturated. 

So how could coconut oil possibly be good for us? 

Well, manufacturers claim that the type of saturated fat in coconut oil (lauric acid) acts differently to other saturated fats. There is some evidence that is starting to suggest this might be true. For example, one study showed that although butter is less ‘saturated’ than coconut oil, it seems to raise our ‘LDL’ cholesterol (bad cholesterol) more than coconut oil. But it’s early days. At this stage, there is no valid or reliable studies to date supporting the health claims attributed to coconut oil. 

There is, however, strong evidence to show that monounsaturated oils (like olive oil) and polyunsaturated oils (like omega-3 oils found in fish) are protective against heart disease.
 
The particular health benefits attributed to olive oil are in part due to the high percentage of mono and poly unsaturated fatty acids and also the fact that olive oil has about 30 different types of “phenols” which are strong antioxidants.
 
Extra virgin is considered the best: no chemicals added in processing, a very small amount of heat, oil extracted from traditional cold pressing meaning the nutrients in the oil are retained.
 
If a recipe calls for coconut oil for flavour, small amounts are not going to be harmful as part of a healthy, well balanced diet. 
 
Would I recommend it over olive oil? 
 
Definitely not.

Perhaps even more controversial is what I've got to tell you about margarine vs butter.  

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