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Why coconut oil is better than vegetable oil

coconut_oil_vs_vegetable_oil

Fats are one of the most misunderstood topics in nutrition and my loyal newsletter subscribers may have noticed something about the recipes I post.

I use coconut oil. A lot.

I also use ghee or butter.

I sometimes use olive oil.

I never use vegetable oils like soy, canola, or corn.

 I was recently interviewed for an article on coconut oil by a fellow real food dietitian, Aglaée Jacob, for the magazine Today’s Dietitian. I thought you might like to hear some of the highlights and understand why I love coconut oil and why you should, too.

Many people question the use of coconut oil because it is high in saturated fat. The assumption is that saturated fat is bad for you and should be reduced or eliminated in your diet.

Turns out that reducing saturated fat hasn’t panned out the way researchers from 50 years ago thought. Americans followed the advice. Nowadays we eat less saturated fat, more unsaturated fat, more carbohydrate (and in case you’re wondering, roughly the same amount of protein), and we’re sicker and fatter than ever.

The claim that saturated fat is bad for you is meritless, yet has unfortunately been perpetuated since the 1950’s, even through my formal training as a registered dietitian and nutritionist.

A major review article on saturated fat published this year concluded:

Saturated fats are benign with regard to inflammatory effects… The influence of dietary fats on serum cholesterol has been overstated, and a physiological mechanism for saturated fats causing heart disease is still missing. – Lawrence G. Adv. Nutr. 2013.

That’s not the information you’ll read when you pick up any health-related magazine or follow a “lighter” recipe. It’s still all about lean meat, low-fat dairy, and reduced-fat versions of tasty classics. They tell you to use vegetable oil because it’s “healthier” for you – because it’s lower in saturated fat. But I disagree.

Why Cooking with Vegetable Oil is not Healthy

 

What they don’t tell you is that cooking with unsaturated fats, the kind found in vegetable oils, damages them and creates free radicals. Free radicals are essentially the opposite of antioxidants.  That’s bad.  They lead to inflammation in the body that’s linked to the very heart disease and diabetes you were trying to avoid by using them.

Cooking with saturated fats, on the other hand, does not damage them. They actually stay pretty much unharmed due to their stable chemical structure. That’s why generations of chefs love the stuff; they don’t go rancid or develop off-flavors and they have a high smoke point. And, that’s why I prefer to cook with saturated fats, coconut oil being a personal favorite.

Now for the science buffs out there, I’m purposefully simplifying this. There are different types of unsaturated fats. Some unsaturated fats have critical roles in our bodies and in their undamaged, unheated forms are healthy (omega-3 fats are just one example, monounsaturated fats from foods like olive oil and avocado are another).

The important point is that processed vegetable oils sold in clear plastic jugs are not part of this group and because they are so fragile, they are often rancid by the time of purchase (exposure to light is enough to oxidize unsaturated fats, which is why high quality oils are often sold in dark bottles).

Some Cool Facts About Coconut Oil

 

Coconut oil has a particular type of saturated fat called “medium chain triglycerides” (MCTs), which are easily digested and readily burned for energy, much like simple carbohydrates give you an energy boost, but without the spike in blood sugar. This makes coconut oil particularly helpful for people who have trouble digesting fats, athletes, and those with low energy levels.

A nice bonus of MCTs in coconut oil is the effect on metabolism, specifically their ability to promote weight loss. In studies where people use coconut oil in place of other cooking oils, weight loss is greater in those using coconut oil.

One of the MCTs in coconut oil called lauric acid has other beneficial effects, namely antimicrobial and antifungal properties that help maintain normal gut flora and immune function. Maybe that’s why human breastmilk is the only other significant source of lauric acid that we know of.

When you think about it, this makes perfect sense. Coconut palms grow in tropical regions with high humidity and temperatures that promote growth of fungi, molds, bacteria, and viruses. In order to protect itself from these pathogens, coconuts naturally produce compounds to ward them off.

How to Use Coconut Oil?

Traditionally used in Thailand and India, coconut oil adds great flavor to stir fry recipes and curries.  I use coconut oil in place of other cooking oils for most recipes that call for sauteing, frying, or roasting.

When baking recipes list vegetable oil, I replace it with an equal quantity of coconut oil. Note that coconut oil is naturally solid at room temperature, so if your house is cool, you might have to scoop it out with a spoon and melt it before use. Because if this, coconut oil doesn’t make the best salad dressing oil. I still prefer extra virgin olive oil as a base for salads dressings.

Coconut oil can also be used to replace butter, although I see no reason to do that if you can find a good quality butter from grassfed cows. (I’m a big fan of good butter.)

Finally, coconut oil can be used externally as a lotion. If you’re using a nice extra-virgin coconut oil, it will have a lovely coconut scent and for those of us with sensitive skin, it’s extremely gentle.

Now I’d like to hear from you!

Do you like coconut oil? If so, how do you use it?

If you have friends or family that are still cooking with vegetable oils because they think it’s healthy, forward this article to them!

You never know how much a small tip like this can change a life.

Happy cooking with coconut oil!

Until next week,

Lily

PS – If you want to read the full coconut article I was quoted in, check it out here. I’ll warn you ahead of time, it’s written for nutrition professionals, so it gets a little technical. Enjoy!

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{ 45 comments… add one }
  • Kristi October 15, 2013, 2:58 pm

    Coconut oil is so good in baking! The last time I made banana bread, I used coconut oil instead of canola oil and it came out so much better than usual… almost buttery. Yum.

    • Lily October 18, 2013, 5:00 pm

      Hi Kristi – I agree! Coconut oil goes so well with homemade baked goods.

      • Anonymous June 12, 2015, 1:26 pm

        I’m about to try banana bread as well. Replacing vegetable oil with coconut oil and also replacing flour with hemp protein. I’ll report back the result.

  • Tim June 7, 2014, 8:46 pm

    Coconut oil in brownies instead of veg. oil tastes incredible! I also use coconut oil for making popcorn which is very yummy!

  • Pam August 20, 2014, 5:09 am

    Does coconut oil leave a strong coconut flavor? My husband dislikes coconut flavor but has just been told he is diabetic, and we are trying to shift our diet. Lots of the recipes I am finding call for coconut oil but do want to use it if the flavor is going to be strong.

    • Lily August 20, 2014, 9:12 am

      Hi Pam,
      It depends on the type of coconut oil. Extra virgin coconut oil will have a stronger coconut flavor than a refined version. Unlike other oils, coconut oil doesn’t go rancid during the refining process, but it does lose some antioxidants. Refined coconut oil is still healthier than other cooking oils, so I’d go with that first. If the recipe has many spices, I don’t notice the flavor at all.

  • Allen November 14, 2014, 10:34 am

    I purchased a jar of Coconut oil sometime back and have never used it. However, after reading your articla I will be using it a lot.

    • Lily November 14, 2014, 12:40 pm

      Luckily, coconut oil has a long shelf life! Enjoy!

  • Adriana November 25, 2014, 9:09 am

    I’ll be baking with coconut oil this holiday season!!

  • Kathy January 27, 2015, 5:50 am

    I am a fellow dietitian. I am wondering if you would be able to share your sources for this information. I’m trying to study up on coconut oil and the comparison to vegetable oils myself to be able to clearly talk to my patients about it from a research-based perspective. Thanks!

    • Lily January 27, 2015, 10:46 am

      Hi Kathy,
      The increased susceptibility of unsaturated fats to oxidation and rancidity compared to saturated fats is something you’ll find in basic biochemistry and organic chemistry textbooks (and the book, Know Your Fats by lipid biochemist, Mary Enig). For the rest, I suggest searching PubMed for terms such as: “coconut oil stability”, “coconut oil cholesterol”, “coconut oil oxidation”, “coconut oil energy expenditure”, “lauric acid antimicrobial”, “omega-6 inflammation”, etc.

      Aglaee Jacob, MS, RD did a nice (cited) summary in Today’s Dietitian.

      Here are other articles to get your research started:

      DiNicolantonio, James J. “The cardiometabolic consequences of replacing saturated fats with carbohydrates or Ω-6 polyunsaturated fats: Do the dietary guidelines have it wrong?.” Open Heart 1.1 (2014): e000032.

      Assunção, Monica L et al. “Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity.” Lipids 44.7 (2009): 593-601.

      Siri-Tarino, Patty W et al. “Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies evaluating the association of saturated fat with cardiovascular disease.” The American journal of clinical nutrition (2010): AJCN. 27725.

      Eder, E et al. “Oxidative stress related DNA adducts in the liver of female rats fed with sunflower-, rapeseed-, olive-or coconut oil supplemented diets.” Chemico-biological interactions 159.2 (2006): 81-89.

      Bhatnagar, AS et al. “Fatty acid composition, oxidative stability, and radical scavenging activity of vegetable oil blends with coconut oil.” Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society 86.10 (2009): 991-999.

      Malhotra, Aseem. “Saturated fat is not the major issue.” BMJ: British Medical Journal 347 (2013).

  • leah flores May 7, 2015, 10:16 am

    Wonderful, well-researched article. Thank you 🙂 i just used coconut oil for the first time in baking a batch of banana oat chocolate chip cookies and i LOVED it. So I’m kinda on a reading spree on coconut oil benefits and uses. I’m glad i found your article as i just decided to try it in my other recipes.

  • Carla June 25, 2015, 1:34 am

    Hi,
    Thank you for this very nice article. I have never cooked with coconut oil and I am just starting researching it.
    I have some questions about butter: What do you think about cooking with butter? Has butter a low smoking point? Would butter be better then vegetable oil for cooking? (I am concerned about the flavor of coconut in food and the high price it has in Holland where I live)
    And about vegetable oils, what do you think about sunflower oil? You don’t mention this one specifically, so I would like to know if it has the same issues as the others.
    Thank you! 🙂

    • Lily June 25, 2015, 9:23 am

      Yes, Carla, but if you’re doing any high heat cooking, the milk solids in butter can burn. In that case, I’d use ghee (clarified butter). Sunflower oil is unsuitable for cooking.

      • Anonymous June 26, 2015, 3:47 pm

        Hi Lily,
        Thank You for your reply. I will think about ghee. Why is sunflower oil unsuitable for cooking? Do you have any article or reference that I can read? I use it for frying and baking. I have never heard about it. I am now worried.
        Thank you!

        • Lily June 26, 2015, 6:08 pm

          Unsaturated fats (those that are liquid at room temp), such as sunflower oil, oxidize at high temps.

          • Anonymous July 15, 2015, 3:01 am

            Thank you Lily!

      • Jane November 6, 2016, 7:09 am

        I hear Clarified butter many times, what is it.?

  • Doris October 4, 2015, 4:29 pm

    Replacing vegetable oils with coconut oil and tossing out everything with high fructose corn syrup and processed foods would make a significant difference in American health.

    • Lily October 5, 2015, 10:19 am

      Absolutely!

  • Amy October 12, 2015, 7:14 am

    Thank you for sharing. I have also found coconut oil to be healthy for my loyal canine friends. My dog gets (and loves) a teaspoon a day and he has a shiny beautiful coat due to that.

  • Susan December 9, 2015, 11:20 am

    I started cooking with organic coconut oil months ago and love the flavor it gives the food. I use in chicken, salmon, etc. I also love how the kitchen smells of coconut when cooking. It is the only oil I use now…..and it is good for me.

  • Miriam Leiman December 20, 2015, 4:55 am

    I bought a jar of coconut oil from the health food store a year ago and I just now tried a little with microwaved vegetables. I only put in a teaspoon but I still noticed the flavor which kind of put me off. I love cocconut in baked goods or anything sweet but with savory food not so much. How much seasoning do you need to use to adequately disguise the taste?

  • Tanya January 31, 2016, 10:19 pm

    I recently became a strict vegetarian and loss a ton of weight. I started looking for an alternative to vegetable oil for baking and came across this site. Thanks for the nutritional facts on coconut oil!

  • Kelli February 15, 2016, 12:09 pm

    The link to the article no longer takes you to the article. In fact, I cannot access the article anywhere on Today’s Dietitian. Is there a reason that it has been removed? It is not even available in the digital edition. I would like to use it for one of my classes.

  • cher April 29, 2016, 6:22 am

    Any cookbook titles that use exclusively coconut oil? Best outlet for purchasing the extra virgin type. Whys extra virgin better than regular version?

  • Reese May 4, 2016, 2:39 pm

    I use it in my fried potatoes and smoked sausage dish (simple, but delicious) and I love the flavor the coconut oil gives it. Plus the higher smoke temp is pretty sweet

  • Kimberly May 11, 2016, 9:29 am

    – I put it in my coffee along with a bit of caramel or vanilla extract, then whip it with an immersion blender.
    – moisturizer for hands, face and hair.
    – baking pan coating, as well as replacing butter/shortening.
    – eat a spoonful in the morning just because it’s yummy.
    – lip balm!
    .. etc

    • Lily May 11, 2016, 10:46 am

      Yeah coconut oil is tasty in coffee, tea, or even cocoa!

  • Pepé May 31, 2016, 9:32 pm

    We were gong to make a lemon cake (just the store bought kind from a box) which called for vegetable oil which we were out of. So we substituted coconut oil. OMG! it was so fluffy, light and moist. It did have a hint of coconut flavor, but it went great with the lemon flavor. Little by little I’m discovering the different uses for it and I’m liking it… lotion, coffee sweeter, oil pulling and now baking. Good stuff!

  • Theresa July 24, 2016, 11:40 am

    Hi Lily

    I am opening a Take away next week and are thinking about using coconut oil in the deep fryers for the Take Aways.
    Can I use coconut oil? And will I be able to use the oil for longer than normal cooking oil.

    • Lily July 27, 2016, 3:54 pm

      That would be amazing! Yes, saturated fats, like coconut oil and tallow, can withstand heating (and re-heating) without going rancid, unlike vegetable oil.

      • Dawn September 13, 2016, 5:13 pm

        I liked your article. I use cocout and peanut. Never canola. Lots of EVOO. Is peanut a vegy?

        • Lily September 15, 2016, 8:37 am

          Peanut oil is a mostly unsaturated vegetable oil, so not ideal for high heat cooking.

  • Doug August 10, 2016, 2:03 pm

    I wanted to add that my family loves when I use it for popcorn instead of corn oil. It beats those microwave versions by a mile as well.

    Thanks for the info!

  • Niville Ho August 15, 2016, 7:45 pm

    if so, why is olive oil okay for cooking?
    Olive oil is also a vegetable oil
    and doesn’t contain so much saturated fat.

    • Lily August 22, 2016, 10:44 am

      Olive oil is also not ideal for cooking, especially at high-heat. However, olive oil contains more monounsaturated fat than polyunsaturated fat, so it is slightly more stable than typical vegetable oils (meaning corn, soy, cottonseed, etc).

      By the way, there’s no reason to fear saturated fat. 😉

  • Steve Drost November 22, 2016, 12:35 pm

    My wife has recently switched to coconut oil and we love the taste. One thing I’ve noticed: when I scramble eggs using coconut oil, it makes the pan WAY easier to clean.

  • Likes to Cook January 22, 2017, 8:37 am

    Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! Vegetable oil leaves a very bad taste in my mouth after baking a “boxed” recipe that calls for it and I almost always bake from scratch. But one of my recipes calls for 2 1/2 Cups of vegetable oil and the thought of that much oil in a recipe makes me sick to my stomach. I am practicing with this recipe and will reduce the amounts but am glad to substitute with the coconut oil.

    • Lily January 23, 2017, 8:38 am

      I use coconut oil or butter in place of vegetable oil in baking recipes all the time. They taste way better and are actually healthier. (If you have any concerns about saturated fat or eating too much fat in general, please give this a read: Saturated fat: does it really clog your arteries?)

    • Lily January 23, 2017, 8:38 am

      I use coconut oil or butter in place of vegetable oil in baking recipes all the time. They taste way better and are actually healthier. (If you have any concerns about saturated fat or eating too much fat in general, please give this a read: Saturated fat: does it really clog your arteries?)

  • Margo March 28, 2017, 4:19 am

    Could u please explain what clarified butter is! Looking to bake with coconut oil for the first time today, came across ur site and interested in the ‘clarified’ butter.
    I have also substituted 1/2 vegetable oil with applesauce in the past with excellent results.
    Your blog is amazing and very helpful, thank you

    • Lily March 28, 2017, 10:11 am

      Hi Margo – Clarified butter has the milk solids removed, so it does not burn when cooked at high temperatures. It’s very simple to make by heating butter over low heat, then straining through cheesecloth.

  • Kailey April 2, 2017, 7:46 am

    I have what some may call “chicken skin”, and I’ve been using coconut oil on my damp arms right after a shower for about a year now and you can instantly tell a difference in the amount of moisture it provides for my arms. I heard you can use it as a deodorant, so as I’m doing research on that, I see this site and now I’m going to buy another container just for my kitchen to start using to cook! Thanks for all the info! 🙂

  • Amitosh Kumar April 26, 2017, 10:20 pm

    Great article indeed!!
    I stay in India. We have generally used Mustard oil in northern part of our country and Coconut oil in south India. But as western influence in our everyday life is getting deeper every passing day. We have been badly changing to vegetable oils such as Olive, Canola, Soyabean, Peanut and so on!!
    But i can see health of Indians have worsened slowly inspite of using the above said oils and this article clearly is an eye opener. In our part Coconut oil is considered as bad and fattening, which is rediculous.

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