Coconut oil: is it better than butter?

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Coconut oil has been around for a very long time but it recently became more popular in the United States. There are a few types of coconut oil. Cold pressed and unrefined coconut oil is the least processed and has the most coconut flavor. There is also refined coconut oil, which is more processed and has less of a coconut taste. Lastly, fractionated coconut oil, which is in liquid form, is used for beauty products. Coconut oil has become a common staple for those following keto, paleo, and whole 30 diets. Coconut oil can be used in place of butter, lard, and other oils, but the question is, should we? Is this a heart healthy choice? Or just another trendy food item? 

The nutritional content 

Fat is essential for our bodies, it is one of three macronutrients, and provides our bodies with energy. Fat is the most energy rich, each gram of fat yields 9 calories. Our bodies rely on fat for vitamin absorption, biochemical processes, and many other things. There needs to be some balance between fat and other nutrients in the diet, as too much fat isn’t a good thing either. 

Saturated fats are solid at room temperature and include coconut oil, butter, and lard to name a few. Coconut oil contains about 92% saturated fat but somehow coconut has gotten the rep that it is better than butter. Interestingly, butter actually has less saturated fat and more unsaturated fat than coconut oil. 

Coconut oil has been in the spotlight for its medium chain triglycerides (MCT) content. Medium chain triglycerides are a type of fat that is found in coconut oils, while other saturated fats*  contain short and long chain triglycerides. Medium chain triglycerides get absorbed differently in the body than the other types of fatty acids. Lauric acid is the predominant medium chain triglyceride in coconut oil. Lauric acid is almost half of the saturated fat. The remaining half are the same fatty acids that are found in butter; stearic, myristic acid, short chain, and palmitic acid. It has been stated that coconut oil should technically not be considered a medium chain triglyceride but that it contains medium chain triglycerides. Coconut oil may still contain some of the benefits of medium chain triglycerides but it should not be directly compared to them. Coconut oil contains antioxidants, which are anti-inflammatory and beneficial for the brain and overall health.

How does coconut oil affect the heart?

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A lipids profile (blood work) is typically ordered for those that have a history or at risk for high cholesterol and/or triglycerides. A lipid profile includes total cholesterol, LDL-C (“bad” cholesterol), HDL-C (“good” cholesterol), and triglycerides (fat in the blood). There is a long history of research that mentions how saturated fats increase blood cholesterol. It is recommended to replace saturated fats with unsaturated vegetable oils, as this switch may be more beneficial for heart health. 

Even though coconut oil is a saturated fat, due to its medium chain triglycerides content it may be more beneficial than other saturated fats. Several studies have shown that coconut oil did increase total and LDL-C cholesterol when compared to other plant based oils but less than butter. Vegetable oils were shown to improve lipid labs over butter, and coconut oil was shown to help improve HDL-C the most out of 13 different oils studied. 

Another study provided two supplements a day of  15mL each of virgin coconut oil for 8 weeks, which is about 2 tablespoons. That would be a standard amount one would use on a daily basis. This study showed a significant increase in HDL-C compared to the control, but no significant change in total, triglycerides, and LDL. This pretty much sums up that in comparison to other unsaturated plant based fats, coconut is not favorable. When coconut oil is compared to animal fats such as butter, it may be a better choice. 

Hypertension is monitored by having a health care provider check blood pressure. This measures the actual pressure of your blood. When blood pressure is too high, the risk of cardiovascular events increases. Blood pressure was studied in another meta analysis. It was shown that there was an increase in diastolic pressure in the group that had coconut oil compared to olive oil. 

What is so great about coconut oil? 

The benefits of coconut oil typically stem from its medium chain triglyceride content. There are several benefits of medium chain triglycerides. MCTs have been marketed as a tool for fat burning but is this beneficial due to the high caloric content of coconut oil? Medium chain fatty acids are not resterified into adipose tissue but are used by the body for energy. (fact check) The absorption of MCT is what makes it unique and has been studied to have cognitive benefits.  MCT absorption is linked to fat burning and also reducing hunger but these are based on MCT not specifically coconut oi. It is an indirect assumption. 

So, is it really better than butter? 

This question is so hard to answer because research is always changing but majority of the research states that butter does raise lipid levels more than coconut oil. A lot of review articles have mentioned that coconut oil should be grouped in the same category as other saturated fats. Coconut oil has raised LDL cholesterol in some studies but when compared to other saturated fats, it wasn’t as much.

As with anything, there should always be balance. People have perceived coconut oil to be a healthier form of fat which can then lead to overconsumption. If you prefer the sweet flavor that coconut oil brings in some dishes, then feel free to use it in moderation.  Unsaturated fats have been proven to lower cholesterol, triglycerides, and LDL levels. If you are using coconut oil in your diet, it is important to also include unsaturated fats. 

Keep in mind that one tablespoon of coconut oil has around 11.2 grams of saturated fat. Saturated fat recommendations are around 10% of daily caloric needs, which can be about 20 grams per day for someone on a 2,000 calorie diet. The American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology’s recommends that only 5-6% of calories come from saturated fat for those that have elevated LDL. Therefore, one tablespoon exceeds these recommendations.

*This information was extrapolated from a study funded by The Coconut Coalition of the Americas but it was stated there was no conflict of interest. This is important to note due to bias, and it is important to take this information and explore further. This article was written in a very unbiased and neutral way.