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Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Is One Healthier Than the Other?


When it comes to healthy ways to make magic in the kitchen, olive oil and coconut oil are two of your closest friends.

Olive oil is the friend you’ve known since grade school who’s completely dependable and always supportive. Coconut oil is the friend you made in your early 20s who’s always up on the latest trends. You need both of them—but what happens when your schedule gets really busy and you’ve only got time for one?

Translation: When you reach for a bottle at Trader Joe’s, which should you carry home if your grocery tote is too full for both? (Reminder: Quality always matters. We’re talking about extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive oil vs. virgin, cold-pressed coconut oil.)

We’ve got the facts on which is healthier: olive oil or coconut oil?

Olive oil vs. Coconut Oil: The Skinny on Different Kinds of Fat

Olive oil contains some saturated fat as well as minimal omega-3s and omega-6s, but the star of its fatty acid profile is monounsaturated fat, most of it in the form of oleic acid. Monounsaturated fats are linked to decreased risk of high blood pressure and a decrease in LDL (“bad” cholesterol)—both of which are good for your heart.

In fact, research shows extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) benefits heart health in multiple ways. Researchers have amassed pretty robust evidence that it reduces heart disease and stroke.

RELATED: Why Healthy Fats Don’t Make You Fat

Coconut oil, on the other hand, is made up primarily of saturated fat in the form of molecules called medium-chain-triglycerides (MCTs). Saturated fat used to be demonized for raising heart disease risk, but recent research has altered that thinking. The saturated fat in coconut oil has actually been found to raise your HDL (“good” cholesterol) and lower triglycerides (fats that raise the risk of heart disease).

MCTs are also quickly metabolized and turned into energy, which means less stored fat. Some research suggests that coconut oil might be superior for weight loss. Preliminary evidence even suggests coconut oil’s fat profile helps prevent Alzheimer’s disease, although the research is far from conclusive.

As for the actual nutritional value of the two oils, they’re much the same. Comparing a one-tablespoon serving of each, extra virgin olive oil has 120 calories in 14 grams of fat (with zero protein and carbs). Virgin coconut oil matches these macronutrient amounts exactly. The difference, as stated above, comes in the saturated fat levels: Olive oil has 2g; coconut oil, 13g.

Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Antioxidant and Anti-Bacterial Advantages

Olive oil has earned its reputation for being rich in antioxidants. It’s filled with bioavailable phenolic compounds that have been found to have multiple, varied positive health effects, such as decreasing oxidative damage to DNA and lowering inflammatory markers.

RELATED: Why Is Inflammation Such a Buzzed-About Health Term?

Coconut oil has been linked to some antioxidant activity, but not nearly to the extent of olive oil. It does, however, contain some anti-bacterial compounds that play a role in preventing acne, supporting immune function and fighting infection.

Olive Oil Vs. Coconut Oil: How to Cook with Them

So, both oils have their own benefits when it comes to nutrition. But what about how they perform in the kitchen?

You may have heard that because olive oil has a lower smoke point, you shouldn’t use it for cooking at higher heats. The concern here is that intense heat will cause it to break down, becoming carcinogenic. Most research actually shows olive oil is very resistant to oxidation, even at high heats (likely due to those incredible antioxidants!).

Still, there’s a reason olive oil is a go-to choice for salad dressings, or for dipping your fresh bread into (as a side to some scrumptious Italian dish)—this Mediterranean marvel tastes great at room temperature, which is what you should store it at, preferably in a tinted bottle. The flavor compounds in EVOO are delicate, and some will evaporate when overheated.

Coconut oil even looks different: Unless you live in a very warm climate (and don’t use the AC much), the coconut oil inside that jar in your pantry is solid at room temperature. That’s an indication of the oil’s higher smoke point, or the temperature at which it begins to break down and oxidize. That’s one reason coconut oil is good for sauteing and baking. If you want to err on the side of caution, choose olive oil primarily for cold foods, coconut for hot.

RELATED: Does Grilling Make Food Carcinogenic?

The Bottom Line

When it comes to research-backed health benefits, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil wins. Consider this: It’s a cornerstone of the Mediterranean diet, which has been studied at length and is linked to reduced risk of heart disease, some cancers, diabetes and more.

Coconut oil is amazing for your health, too. It has multiple benefits for your heart, weight, and more; they’re just not as well-studied yet. It also wins when it comes to versatility. (You can use it outside the kitchen for dental health, to take off makeup and moisturize, and so much more.)

At the end of the day, it’s nice to have one option for savory flavors and another for sweet. Just look for extra-virgin and cold-pressed varieties from trusted brands, and stock your pantry with both options.

(Image: Shutterstock)

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