Healthy Debate: Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil

When it comes to hot topics in nutrition, fat is one buzzword that’s always in the news. There’s been a lot of debate about cooking oils recently, especially regarding the differences between the long-adored olive oil and the relative newcomer, coconut oil. Let’s break it down: Olive oil vs. Coconut Oil.

Comparing Fats

So how do the two compare? 1 Tablespoon of each oil contains 120 calories and 14 grams of fat. The big difference lies in the amount of saturated fat. In olive oil, only 1 of the 14 grams of fat is saturated, whereas 12 of the 14 grams are saturated in coconut oil. Both are cholesterol-free since they come from plant sources.

The American Heart Association recommends that we limit daily fat intake to 25-35% of our total calories and that saturated fat make up no more than 7-10% of total caloric intake since it has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease.

Saturated Fats aren’t all Equal

So why is everyone so excited about coconut oil if it’s so high in saturated fat? Current research suggests that plant-based saturated fats, like coconut, oil may not be as harmful as animal-based saturated fats, like butter.

The main kind of fat found in coconut oil is lauric acid, which contains antioxidants, and is a medium chain triglyceride. MCTs can help the body absorb nutrients and minerals, eliminate bacteria and fight signs of aging. However, studies are limited and more research is needed.

Let’s take a closer look at each type of oil.

Key Traits of Coconut Oil

  • Changes from liquid to solid very easily. Below 76 degrees F, coconut oil is solid, but it will liquefy when heated above 76 degrees.
  • Has a higher smoke point than olive oil. When oils are heated beyond their smoke point, they start to break down and their molecular structure changes, so coconut oil can be good choice when cooking foods at high temperatures.
  • A great substitute for butter when baking, especially for vegans.
  • Some say that you should cook with coconut oil, and use olive oil at room temperature for things like salad dressings, hummus, etc.
  • Some studies have shown it can improve the ratio of total cholesterol to HDL (our good cholesterol) but also raises LDL (the bad cholesterol).

Key Traits of Olive Oil

  • Main type of fat is monounsaturated fatty acids, which have proven to help lower cholesterol.
  • Doesn’t affect or raises HDL (which is good- we want our HDL to be high) and doesn’t raise LDL (also good because we want our LDL to be low).
  • Contains phytonutrients.

Things to Consider

Some believe coconut oil is a better choice than butter and trans fats but not as good as vegetable oils. What’s most important is your overall diet. Do your best to make healthy, balanced dietary choices. Aim to get most of your healthy fats from whole foods like avocados, nuts, and seeds.

It’s important to remember that all kinds of oils are fats. They are high in calories and should be used in moderation. Remember to avoid trans fats at all costs because they lower HDL and increase LDL.

Bottom Line

Enjoy coconut oil if you like it, but do so in moderation until more research has been done.

Your turn: Which oil do you prefer?

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Lindsay is Registered Dietitian and writes about food and fitness at The Lean Green Bean. She shares healthy recipes, fun workouts, and snapshots of her life. She lives with her husband in Ohio and enjoys traveling and spending time outside with her dogs.