All oils are fats, and will have some composition of saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and monounsaturated fats. So, while one tablespoon of any oil will provide about 120 calories, the quality of these calories is not equal. Some types of fats, for example, may increase our risk for heart disease, while others may provide a protective benefit. Understanding these three types of fats helps to understand the health properties of different oils. Saturated fats are those that are solid at room temperature, like shortening and butter. Decades of research shows an association between saturated fat intake and poor heart health; specifically, saturated fat seems to be linked with higher LDL cholesterol levels (the ‘bad’ cholesterol) associated with heart disease. Limiting our intake of saturated fats is recommended we should try and substitute our intake of saturated fats, with poly- and monounsaturated fats. Sorry, butter.
This brings into question coconut oil. Coconut oil is comprised predominantly of saturated fat; in fact, compared to the 7 grams of saturated fat in a tablespoon of butter, there are 12 grams of saturated fat in a tablespoon of coconut oil! That is a lot of saturated fat. The question is does the type of saturated fat matter? Coconut oil has a high content of medium chain triglycerides which may have some health benefits, but the research in humans is sparse. Plus, at least so far researchers and heart experts do not feel the benefits of coconut oil outweigh the risks associated with the high saturated fat content.
Especially when there are better alternatives that have more support for improving our risk for heart disease, such as with oils like canola oil and olive oil. Canola oil is high in polyunsaturated fats such as Omega 3 fatty acids, and this has many health benefits. Canola has a higher smoke point and so is great for stir-fries and other higher heat cooking methods. It is also a great substitute for vegetable oil used for baking products. Extra virgin olive oil is a great source of monounsaturated fatty acid and has shown to help reduce one’s risk for heart disease. Extra virgin olive oil cannot be heated to high temperatures like canola oil, so is recommended for salad dressings, drizzling on roasted vegetables, and other lower heat cooking methods.
Other good oil options include peanut oil, which can also be cooked at higher temperatures and thus is optimal in stir fries; it also adds a great flavor. Walnut oil will be a great oil to use for salad dressings and baked goods, and provides a good amount of the healthy Omega-3’s that are so good for our heart.
Keep in mind with all of this, fat is fat, and this means it has a lot of calories in it (9 calories per gram of fat, versus 4 calories per gram of protein or carbohydrate). So, while some amount of healthy fats is needed for optimal nutrition, avoiding too much fat will help our goals of decreasing our waistline.