What is it?
A saturated (solid at room temperature) oil extracted from the flesh of coconuts. Virgin or extra virgin coconut oil is gotten from fresh coconuts while regular coconut oil is extracted from dried coconut kernels.
- It boosts energy
- It causes weight loss and encourages fat burning
- It whitens teeth and freshens breath
- It protects against illness
- It treats an under active thyroid
The scientific facts?
- Coconut oil is one of the most controversial oils out there – not just among health experts but also among doctors and scientists. As a saturated fat it should be resigned to the ‘bad fat’ pile along with butter and animal fat, but the presence of a unique type of fat molecule called a medium chain fatty acid (MCFA) or medium chain triglyceride (MCT) in this supposed superfood oil has left researchers all over the world confused. MCTs seem to raise bad cholesterol (called LDLs) but also raise good types of cholesterol (called HDLs) as shown in this study and this one, so the overall effect on heart health is unclear. And to add to the confusion, research released in recent years has suggested that all saturated fats actually have no impact on heart health and the idea of ‘bad fats’ is actually a health myth.
- Coconut oil is a good source of MCTs. Unlike other fat molecules, the body prefers to use MCTs up right away instead of storing them – an act that boosts the metabolism and may explain why people report feeling energised after eating coconut oil. Studies, like this, suggest that consuming just 15-30g of MCTs each day can boost the metabolism by 5% and other studies, such as this one, have shown that coconut oil boosts the body’s overall fat burning process. That means that coconut oil could legitimately help banish belly fat.
- Coconut oil is high in lauric acid, the same fatty acid that’s found in breast milk and thought to protect newborn babies from infection. Indeed, studies have shown that lauric acid is a strong anti-bacterial and anti-fungal agent that can help treat acne and improve mouth health (fresh breath and healthy gums) by killing the bacteria that causes acne and mouth infections. There’s no evidence that the superfood oil whitens teeth though.
- There is some evidence that coconut oil can stimulate thyroid function, but little research appears to have been done into this particular health claim.
Nutritional facts – Coconut oil versus olive oil
Olive oil has long been advocated as the healthiest oil to add to your diet. With claims that coconut oil is the new healthy oil of choice, let’s see how 1 tablespoon (14g) of the two compare:
- Kcals: Coconut oil 117 v Olive oil 119
- Fat: Coconut oil 14g v Olive oil 14g
- Saturated fat: Coconut oil 12g v Olive oil 1.9g
- Unsaturated fat: Coconut oil 1g v Olive oil 11.4g
- Protein: Coconut oil 0g v Olive oil 0g
- Carbohydrate: Coconut oil 0g v Olive oil 0g
- Vitamins, minerals and miscellaneous nutrients: Olive oil contains modest amounts of vitamin E and K, as well as antioxidants that have been associated with fighting inflammatory disease.
Winner: Olive oil – it’s much lower in saturated fat than coconut oil, which makes it a safer bet for heart health. And it’s also a good source of vitamin E, which contributes to healthy skin.
Although coconut oil has extra health benefits that olive oil does not (like immune system support and fat burning properties) olive oil also has its own unique health benefits and claims, such as reducing the risk of inflammatory bowel disease.
Worth the hype?
Maybe. It really depends on the health benefit you are after. I don’t recommend swapping the heart-healthy olive oil in your diet for coconut oil as coconut oil is not proven to help keep the heart and blood vessels (cardiovascular system) healthy. And there is still a massive debate on if it helps or harms heart health. If you’re someone who has heart problems or is trying to lower your cholesterol, definitely stay away from coconut oil. But if you’re otherwise healthy and interested in coconut oil for its metabolism boosting, fat burning properties and immune system supporting properties then it’s worth including moderate amounts of the oil in your diet (1-2 tablespoons per day).
Diet tip: Swap butter for coconut oil in recipes that call for a solid fat. It will provide similar textural results, since both are saturated fats, but unlike butter, coconut oil may help raise good cholesterol and has the extra fat-burning health benefits, which may help with slimming or weight loss efforts.