The great fat debate coconut oil VS olive oil


Nothing interests me more than a nutrition debate and there’s been a great fat one looming for a while. You know exactly what I am talking about, the coconut oil VS olive oil debate. The social push by wellness “experts” to use coconut oil in preference to other vegetable oils have been loud and clear.

I am tired of people touting they know of the mired of health benefits coconut oil has and how they have seen the light. On numerous occasions, individuals have told me they pour coconut oil into their milk shakes as part of their ‘clean eating’ regime.

I try to remain unmoved by these comments, whereas in the past it used to really grind my gears. A majority of the time, I find people read too many ‘health’ websites that contain articles from unqualified foodies, who interpret scientific papers incorrectly. A lot of the time the so-called ‘science’ is mixed in with marketing claims, that are dubious at best. These health claims are made illegally and have not been backed by science yet.Yes it is illegal to make health claims about food in Australia, especially unsubstantiated ones. It’s just unfortunate that health authorities don’t have any jurisdiction over food claims made on the internet.

I decided to put this topic to the test for my readers. Lets get into the nitty gritty of the science and pull up the original papers so you can make the decision for yourself which is best coconut oil or olive oil.

The pro coconut oil foodies have two points of contention in their argument for the use of coconut oil. Primarily, the biggest argument is that saturated fat coming from coconut oil isn’t bad. The second argument is the smoking point of coconut oil is far superior than any other oil, making it a healthier choice. A higher smoking point is supposed to make it less carcinogenic. There are of course the miracle health claims touting it cures Alzheimer’s and obesity.

What type of fat is coconut oil?

Coconut oil is a saturated fat high in the Lauric acid in particular. It also has small amounts of medium chain (8 and 10 carbon chain) of saturated fats. It is now known that medium chain fats can be more readily used in the body as fuel, unlike other fats.

It’s this small fact that everyone touts coconut oil’s ability to burn fat and cure disease. One really small technical point I would like to debunk here, in relation to coconut oils fat burning capabilities, is just because the medium chain fats can be broken down easily doesn’t make it fat burning. You still need to expend energy in movement. You will not magically burn more fat sitting on the couch.

Thermodynamics tell us that in order to burn fat you have to burn energy, which means you have to exercise or move more. Even though medium chain fats bring you more energy quickly, you still have to burn it off!

Does coconut oil reduce cholesterol?

Contrary to popular belief coconut oil does not reduce cholesterol, it may have little to no affect at all on cholesterol levels. Studies on coconut oil have shown either no change to cholesterol (as in LDL bad cholesterol or HDL good cholesterol) or an increase in HDL good cholesterol.

Study: Effects of dietary fatty acids and carbohydrates on the ratio of serum total to HDL cholesterol and on serum lipids and apolipo proteins: a meta-analysis of 60 controlled trials.

Don’t get hooked on the superficial view of this study or affects on HDL cholesterol. Digging deeper into the research, there has actually been a study that tested the functionality of HDL produced by coconut oil and Lauric acid. It’s great to have good blood work, however if things aren’t working as it should what’s the point?

Although, saturated fat in coconut oil increased HDL levels, resulting in higher total cholesterol due to higher levels of good HDL cholesterol, the cholesterol did not function as it should. Normally HDL cholesterol is an anti-inflammatory it helps to widen (vasodilate) arteries allowing more blood flow and better function.

The research paper found that If HDL was increased by a polyunsaturated fat like, olive oil or canola oil, it kept its anti-inflammatory properties. However, if HDL is elevated by coconut oil, it doesn’t have the same effect. Below is the study conclusion. Note that this study actually used coconut oil as its saturated fat meal.

“This study demonstrates that the fatty acid composition of a single high-fat meal modifies the ability of HDL to protect the endothelium and vascular reactivity in healthy subjects. Consuming a polyunsaturated fat enhanced, and a saturated fat meal reduced, the anti inflammatory properties of HDL. A non-significant tread toward impairment of the endothelium dependent vascular reactivity in conduit arteries was also demonstrated after the saturated fat meal. These findings highlight potential mechanisms by which dietary fatty acids might influence atherogenesis”.

Here’s another study that was conducted in Brazil. In this study researchers supplemented 30ml of either coconut oil or soybean oil to obese women. No change was observed in blood cholesterol in either group. In the coconut oil group the women reduced their waist circumference. However at the same time increase insulin resistance markers, commonly known as a stepping-stone towards pre diabetes.

“In conclusion,the ingestion of coconut oil did not produce undesirable alterations in the lipid profile of women presenting abdominal obesity, although dietary supplementation with this oil did give rise to a reduction in waist circumference, which is considered to confer some protection against CVD’s. On the other hand, the ingestion of coconut oil appeared to have induced an increase in peripheral insulin resistance”.

As you can see there are a few side effects of coconut oil that is yet to be explained. Non-functional HDL and peripheral insulin resistance. Just these two reasons alone for me, is a good enough reason to hold back on the use of coconut oil.

Will coconut oil help me lose weight?

This is a common belief, that adding coconut oil to meals, shakes or using it as a supplement will help you to lose weight. I find this point very difficult to believe, the science doesn’t stack up to the claims. Coconut oil, is a fat so it is calorific. Regardless of its “health benefits” if any exist, you can change the law of thermodynamics, energy in must be less than energy out to lose weight.

The below study is an example of how supplementation of coconut oil compared to olive oil, helped to reduce body fat better. In this study no side effects or health markers were measured, except for change in body fat. Whilst its a good thing to lose weight, its not a good thing if you develop cholesterol problems or insulin resistance in doing so. Who knows what else was going on internally at the same time?

Study: Weight loss diet that includes consumption of medium-chain triacylglycerol oil leads to a greater rate of weight and fat mass loss than does olive oil.

Another study also found coconut oil beneficial to weight loss, however not any better than olive oil.  Supplementation coconut oil or olive oil in a weight loss plan had the same effects.

Study: Medium chain triglyceride oil consumption as part of a weight loss diet does not lead to adverse metabolic profile when compared to olive oil.

It is important to keep in mind that the saturated fat = heart disease message does have scientific merit that we can’t turn a blind eye to. In Costa Rica they found that when people increased their saturated fat intake by 1%, risk of myocardial infarction (heart attacks) also increased.

Study: Individual saturated fatty acids and nonfatal acute myocardial infarction in Costa Rica.

In another study that looked at the diets of 80082 women found that higher consumption of saturated fat increased the risk of developing heart disease. They also concluded that;
A distinction between stearic acid and other saturated fats does not appear to be important in dietary advice to reduce CHD risk, in part because of the high correlation between stearic acid and other saturated fatty acids in typical diets”

In other words, they don’t think there is much of a difference between saturated fat types and it’s ability to increase the risk of heart disease. If you are going to eat something high in saturated fat its going to have a adverse health effect because you can just choose to eat lauric acid alone. Naturally, food has a range of saturated fatty acid types that you can’t get away from, no matter how much you try. 

Coconut oil is used in many traditional diets, so why isn’t it healthy for me?

I have heard people use the argument that coconut oil is healthy because it’s used in many tropical cultures. They make the assumption that these cultures have healthy lifestyles and live the longest. Obviously you can visit countries and make visual observations, but statement like this may or may not be necessarily true.

Making observations like this can be very dangerous, because perceptions are not always true. For starters I have seen many comments by those with tropical cultural backgrounds on this topic. It turns out they do no drink pure coconut milk or oil. They use it in moderate amounts in cooking only. They eat the whole coconut with the flesh mostly or drink the coconut water. Correct me if I am wrong if you are from a tropical heritage.

As a dietitian I am more interested in what the science says about coconut oil usage and health statistics in these countries. It turns out that observational studies from the typical Sri Lankan diet use large amounts of coconut oil in cooking. This particular cultural group has shown to have higher deaths per 100,000 due to cardiovascular and cerebrovascular diseases. In other words, higher rates of heart attacks and strokes.

Study: Dietary fats,carbohydrates and vascular disease: Sri Lankan perspectives.

The problem with westerners and diets, is that we always do everything in extremes. We take a slightly good message from one particular culture and blow it out of the water. We add it to our own poor highly processed western diet. Adding coconut oil into a diet that contains processed foods is a recipe for disaster and using it as a supplement is even worse. You will never out supplement a bad diet.

I have said this before, we don’t eat food with single nutrients we eat them in combination. Pulling out coconut oil from a traditional diet, that’s high in other fibrous foods like beans, legume, taro and plants,  then adding it to our western diet of potato’s, bread, and noodles, or worse yet junk food, this is not going to work in the same way.

Is coconut oil a cure for Alzheimer’s disease?

This idea came from Dr Mary Newport is a neonatal physician who used coconut oil in her practice to feed newborn babies. On a hunch Dr Newport used coconut oil as a treatment method for her husband who had Alzheimer’s disease. From her observations of her husband’s condition, she noticed he had no further disease progression. His Alzheimer’s disease was not cured, but slowed. In short his Alzheimer’s was never cured, and it was never reported to be cured. Below are the articles in which these urban legends emerged.

Article: Dr Leonard Cold well
Article: What if cure

Note the above articles are self-published articles. They have never been published in peer-reviewed journals. In the science community is type of reference has no weighting. It’s only one person’s theory, and theories are not fact. They are merely hypothetical ideas and opinions.

Alzheimer’s disease is thought to be the 3 type of diabetes, it is theorised that a lifetime of eating a high carbohydrate diet, insulin resistance develops in the brain causing poor uptake of glucose. As glucose is the sole source of fuel for the brain the brain is starved because of lack of food. MCT (medium chain trigylcerides) this type of fat is thought to be an alternative fuel source for the brain in the form of ketone bodies. Ketone bodies are the only other compound like glucose that can pass through the blood brain barrier and feed the brain.

MCT fats can be broken down by the liver and make ketone bodies to fulfil this role. Again this is just a theory, none of this has been proven yet. It should not negate any other forms of treatment a Dr prescribes for Alzheimer’s.The medical community does not support this idea, where as other natural therapy practitioners claim coconut oil is now a cure.

As Alzheimer’s disease is a complicated process of decline involving deterioration of many neurotransmitters in the brain. I think if coconut oil where to do anything it wouldn’t be much. At best it maybe as an adjunct treatment with other treatments, but that is a guess, assumption and never been proven.

Like most things in this world when it comes to diet, because it works on one person doesn’t mean it’s true for all people. An n=1 (persons studied is one) observational study is certainly not scientific evidence of anything. Although, the theory may have some merit to start investigating, we cannot call it a miracle cure just yet. Side effects to coconut oil are still under investigation. For example what’s the point of slowing Alzheimer’s with coconut oil if we end up giving people heart disease and they die of a heart attack?

Clinical trials to investigate the claims of coconut oil and Alzheimer’s disease have just begun in America Florida, if you’re interested in joining the study click on this link. Until studies like this have been fully investigated we cannot make any knowledgeable claim on coconut oil and Alzheimer’s disease.

Now I hate blasting foods and calling them evil, because no food is evil I believe everything has its place. If you want to use coconut oil that’s fine, choose extra virgin coconut oil, which involves less processing. Refined coconut oil is often dried coconut oil that’s had further processing often using chemicals, bleaching and its partially hydrogenated. Studies have also shown that once coconut oil is refined and processed with heat and chemicals, it loses important properties. This loss includes a variety of protective phytonutrients, such as phenolic acids.

What is the chemical composition of olive oil?

Olive oil has been studied for many years and the research has shown time and time again it’s a safe oil to use. I have made several blog posts about the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet in the past, and there are many styles of this diet originating from Greece, Italy and Spain. One of the common denominators in this diet is olive oil. Now the type of fat found in olive oil is monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, which is also found in soybeans, nuts, seeds and avocado. Extra virgin olive oil is also very high in polyphenols and antioxidants like carotenoids. It has also been found to very high in anti-inflammatory compound called oleocanthal. This compound works similarly to the commonly known pain killer drug called ibuprofen.There are many studies that have shown olive oil aids in weight loss, heart disease and yes even Alzheimer’s disease.

Study: Comparing an olive oil-enriched diet to a standard lower fat diet for weight loss in breast cancer survivors: a pilot study

Study: Adherence to aMediterranean-style diet can slow the rate of cognitive decline and decrease the risk of dementia: a systematic review

Study: Fruit, vegetables, and olive oil and risk of coronary heart disease in Italian women: the EPICOR study

Notice as we go through that most of the olive oil studies are big randomised controlled meta- analysis studies and pooled observational studies using large population numbers. These types of method pools thousands of published study results into one big mega study. The results are the results of thousands of independent studies, they are considered higher ranking in the standards of studies produced in research and science. 

Unlike our coconut oil studies, which were singular randomised control trials, with small number of study participants. These types of study results can only be taken at face value. It is not a strong study design and cannot determine a cause and effect relationship.

Now one urban legend that I have had a run in with one eloquent personal trainer on my Facebook wall is the idea that people shouldn’t “ get any of the shit yellow processed olive oil you buy in the stores”… SIGH really? These are not words of wisdom so don’t pay attention. If you are extracting oil out of black and green olives, what colour do you expect do you expect oil it to be? Most oils, butter, coconut oil, canola oil and human fat are all yellow, that’s the natural colour of fat. The different shades of yellow or slightly green resemble the different grades of olive oil you have purchased. Some are more suitable for things than others.

Note that olive oil is graded against international olive oil council certification criteria. Virgin olive oils are a natural product obtained from olives, produced solely by washing, crushing, decanting, centrifuging and filtering. They have not undergone chemical or heat processing.

This is the highest quality olive oil, has the highest level of antioxidants compared to other olive oils. The flavour and of course the colour of the oil depends on the olive variety used. It has free acidity level of less than 1 %. This oil is best used as a salad dressing, marinade or with balsamic vinegar for dipping bread.

Virgin olive oil

This has a slightly higher free acidity level 2% than extra virgin. It is a slightly lower grade however still contains a high level of antioxidants. It can be used multi purposefully in the kitchen.

Refined olive oil

This oil has been produced by chemical and physical filters to remove acidity. It’s clear and tasteless.

Olive oil or pure olive oil

This is the most common one found in the supermarket is a 90% refined and 10% virgin olive oil blend. The fats are still mono unsaturated and it has not been chemically processed. However, the anti oxidant levels are low. Within this category is the ‘light’ or ‘extra light’, which refers to the taste of the oil only. Meaning it is light in flavour, this is best used for baking.

As you can see there is a huge difference between refined and extra virgin olive oil, which does change the flavour enormously.However the macronutrient content of the fat remains the same, all are mono unsaturated fats the only difference is the amount of antioxidants. Gentler extraction processes help retain the good antioxidants, the same chemicals found in veggies and fruit.One comparison study showed that compared to extra virgin olive oil, refined olive oil had 20% less squalene, 75% less total phenols, almost 90% fewer simple phenols and almost 80% fewer lignans. All of these compounds are thought to be beneficial to health. It is possible that high levels of squalene from olive oil in the Mediterranean diet are a protective factor in reducing skin cancer incidence.

Study: Olive oil minor constituents of health

It does make a difference in the olive oil you choose, especially if you are after the antioxidant health benefits of olive oil. The antioxidant phenols coupled with the mono unsaturated fats is what make olive oil so beneficial to health. Taking out the antioxidants takes away some of the benefits.The benefits to health can be viewed in the following study examples:

Study: Effects of differing phenolic content in dietary olive oils on lipids and LDL oxidation- a randomised controlled trial. It has also been shown to improve heart disease through lowering LDL cholesterol raise HDL good cholesterol, which unlike coconut oil, is functional and does vasodilate arteries.

Study: Are olive oil diets antithrombotic? Diets enriched with olive, rapeseed, or sunflower oil affect postprandial factor VII differnetly1’2’3

The below study also indicate that heating olive oil for example during deep-frying doesn’t seem to change its health benefits either.

Study: Normal endothelial function after meals rich in olive or safflower oil previously used for deep-frying 

One argument against the use of olive oil is with cooking. Most people believe that it’s not good to cook with due to its fat instability and lower smoking point temperatures. I’m going to use basic high school math’s to debunk this urban legend. Below is a table of oils and their relative smoking points

Cooking oils
Smoking point
Omega6 : 3 ratio
Extra virgin olive oil
73% mono unsat fat, high in omega-9
Higher quality (low acidity) extra virgin olive oil
13:1, 74% mono (71.3% omega-9)
Extra virgin Coconut oil
85% lauric acid, 66% medium chain triglycerdies
Extra light olive oil
74% monounsaturated, high in omega 9
Flaxseed oil
Peanut oil
9:1 saturated and mono unsaturated
Canola oil
Rice bran oil


As you can see both extra virgin coconut oil has a lower smoking temperature and also has unstable properties in their fatty acid chain. Making it more likely to produce harmful free radicals at smoking point at around 177 degrees. But lets take a step back and ask ourselves, what temperatures do you actually reach during cooking food in a normal home kitchen? 

Cooking method
Frying steak temp on inside
Rare 63, medium 71, well-done 77
Roasting veggies
Baking cakes
Deep frying potato’s

By just doing the math’s if your quickly frying something you probably won’t reach smoking point ever. Remember degrading fat so it changes to free radicals is also time dependent. Frying a steak for 10-15min is not long enough to change it’s chemical fat composition. Personally I have never fried anything long enough to make any oil smoke, have you?

Now lets talk about the baking option at 180 degrees. Higher quality (low acidity) extra virgin olive oil, light olive oil or rice bran oil, has a higher smoking point than coconut oil, so using the same argument wouldn’t you want to use those instead? However, I wouldn’t recommend using rice bran oil, because it contains no health benefits what so ever, and is highly refined.

Refined oils, are made by heating or chemical processing. This means any antioxidants that is once contained, no longer exists. It also gives it a better chance of producing small amounts of trans fats in the processing. Trans fats are the worst thing you can consume for your health, it has been directly associated with poor heart health. Currently, around the world there are legislative measures being put in place to ban trans fats from the food supply. In Australia, this push to ban trans fats occurred back in the 1990’s. We no longer have trans fats in margarines or any other products. The European union made it illegal to use trans fats commercially in 2014, and the USA in 2015 was planning a total ban..

Olive oil regardless being refined are an unsaturated fats that has been proven to be beneficial to health. Unlike coconut oil which, the jury is still out.  The benefit of that type of saturated fat and health is yet to be proven. Going with something you know works (olive oil), or go with something you hope works (coconut oil)? Not a tough question for me.

Added benefits of extra virgin olive oil, beyond fats

Beyond the fat types of olive oil compared to coconut oil, or any other vegetable oil for that matter, olive oil has loads of health benefits.

These benefits are hidden and often forgotten about. Olive oil contains a truck load of antioxidants, namely polyphenols that no other oil contains. This is another reason why olive oil is heart and cancer protective, as well as assist with weight loss.

The antioxidants is what stabilises the oil so it can be used in cooking at high temperatures. The antioxidants is also responsible for reducing the levels of oxidised LDL, which we know is the bad cholesterol associated with heart disease. These same antioxidants improve HDL (the good cholesterol) levels. These heart healthy affects is seen with merely 25ml of olive oil daily, which is approximately 1.5 tbsp.

Cooking vegetables in extra virgin olive oil increases the antioxidant levels and absorption of carotenoid vitamins, this has been shown to improve post meal insulin levels. Olive oil is also high in vitamin E and K, whereas coconut oil or any other oil is not.

Scientists are also currently studying the effects of following a diet high in olive oil such as the Mediterranean diet and reduced skin cancer incidence. The photochemical squalene has been shown to be skin cancer protective. There is emerging evidence that a dose of 25ml olive oil daily might decrease skin cancer incidence.

Is coconut oil healthy or is it just hype?

In summary, I think its clever marketing more than anything. The benefits have not been proven and with the little research we have I think if anything the benefits would be minor in terms of body fat, if not neutral to health. Is it worth switching olive oil to coconut oil? My answer is simply no. I would not risk the use of something that’s unknown and potentially harmful when you have perfectly good olive oil that has been well researched. Olive oil is beneficial to heart health and cancer, use something that will add value to your heath, don’t fall for the coconut oil fad.

What do I personally use?

I use extra virgin olive oil in all my cooking: frying, baking and salad dressings. I don’t hate coconut oil, I believe it has its place in the food chain amongst other things. If you want to use it go right ahead. Having a little bit of coconut oil isn’t going to make you keel over with a heart attack or anything like that. However, like everything that’s high in energy, moderate it or else you will gain weight and currently we don’t know what the side effects may be- if any?