Coconut Oil vs. Olive Oil – A Detailed Comparison of the Two Healthiest Oils

With the increasing amount of health-related information available to the public, especially with regard to how our food choices impact our health, people are increasingly becoming cautious and careful about what they eat. As a result, there has been a huge shift in our eating patterns lately, and more and more people are opting for healthy diets.

When it comes to a healthy diet, the type of fat you consume is highly important. Depending on the choices you make, fat can either support various body mechanisms, like nerve and brain function and even heart health, or contribute to several health problems, like hypertension, atherosclerosis, and heart disease.

To help you make the best choice, here we compare the two healthiest oils – coconut oil and olive oil. Both these oils have their fair share of devoted followers, but do we have a winner? Let’s find out!

Coconut Oil

Coconut oil in a glass jar

While coconut oil has been around for a very long time, its use for culinary purposes has gained immense popularity in recent years, along with the rise of the ketogenic diet. This is mainly due to the claims that coconut oil has similar properties as the medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oil and can offer a wide range of health benefits. These include improved heart health and brain function, slowing the progression of degenerative brain diseases (like Alzheimer’s), and assisting in weight loss, to name a few.

However, many nutrition experts seem to disagree with the prevalent public belief. In a survey conducted by The Upshot (the New York Times’ website), along with the media and polling firm Morning Consult, only 37% nutritionists agreed to the public opinion that coconut oil is a healthy choice of fat. On the contrary, 72% of Americans reported coconut oil as a healthy food choice.

The differing opinion leaves many in confusion; being unable to decide whether coconut oil is worth using or is best to avoid.

Let’s take a look at the nutritional breakdown of coconut oil to get an idea.

Nutritional Breakdown of Coconut Oil

According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a tablespoon of coconut oil contains[1]:

  • Calories – 121
  • Total fat – 13.5 g
  • Saturated fatty acids – 11.2 g
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids – 0.86 g
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids – 0.23 g

Evaluating the Nutritional Profile of Coconut Oil

While the total calorie count and fat content of coconut oil are similar to many other types of oil, it is the high levels of saturated fatty acids in it that has sparked a debate among researchers and health experts. Out of the total 13.5 grams of fat present in a tablespoon of coconut oil, 11.2 grams come from saturated fatty acids.

For those who do not know, saturated fat is a type of unhealthy dietary fat and consuming large amounts of it have been linked to increased LDL (bad cholesterol) levels in the blood. A high level of LDL cholesterol is a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke[2].  

Due to its negative health impacts, Americans are recommended to limit the consumption of saturated fats to less than 10% of daily calories, according to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020[3].

But, the American Heart Association recommends limiting the saturated fat intake to 5% to 6% of a day’s calories[4]. For a person with 2,000 daily calorie needs, this makes around 13 grams of saturated fat intake per day – a little over a tablespoon of coconut oil.

In a more recent study, the American Heart Association reviewed and analyzed the available scientific evidence regarding the effects of different types of dietary fats on cardiovascular health. After carefully evaluating the data of 100 research studies, the AHA advised against using coconut oil mainly due to its negative effects on the LDL cholesterol level.[5]

Now you must be wondering where the misconceptions regarding the health benefits of coconut oil have come from?

The concept mainly emerged from the research studies that highlighted the benefits of medium-chain triglycerides and reported that coconut oil has similar properties due to high levels (about 42%) of lauric acid.

Lauric acid was initially believed to be a medium-chain triglyceride. However, modern studies have found that it is on the cusp of medium and long-chain triglycerides, but acts like a long-chain triglyceride (LCT) in the body[6]. Therefore, coconut oil cannot be considered an MCT oil.

Olive Oil

Olive oil in a glass bowl

When it comes to determining healthy sources of fat, olive oil is the first name that comes to the mind of most people. Extracted from the drupes of olive trees, the oil has long been known to offer a variety of health benefits, including protection from atherosclerosis, heart disease, stroke, and neurodegeneration (brain dysfunction). The polyphenols present in the extra-virgin variety of olive oil have also been found to offer protection against different types of cancer[7].

Extra virgin olive oil is also packed with antioxidants, which prevent the body from free radical damage.

For those who do not know, free radicals cause oxidative stress, which in turn causes cell damage as well as triggers the development of many chronic diseases.

While the health benefits of olive oil have long been established, let’s take a look at its nutritional breakdown, fat profile, in particular, to determine if it is better than coconut oil or not:

Nutritional Breakdown of Olive Oil

Here is the nutritional profile of a tablespoon of olive oil, as given by the U.S. Department of Agriculture:

  • Calories – 119
  • Total fat – 13.5 g
  • Saturated fatty acids – 1.86 g
  • Monounsaturated fatty acids – 9.85 g
  • Polyunsaturated fatty acids – 1.42 g
  • Vitamin E – 1.94 mg
  • Vitamin K – 8.13 micrograms

It also contains traces of potassium and calcium.

Evaluating the Nutritional Profile of Olive Oil

Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, which are considered one of the healthy types of dietary fats and together with polyunsaturated fats are known to help reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases[8].

According to the American Heart Association, monounsaturated fats can lower the risks of heart disease and stroke by helping to reduce blood cholesterol levels. Furthermore, these fatty acids also supply the body with essential nutrients required to develop and maintain cells. Oils that contain a high amount of monounsaturated fatty acids also supply vitamin E to the body, which is an antioxidant and helps prevent the body from oxidative stress[9].

Olive also offers some amount of polyunsaturated fatty acids, which means it provides your body with omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids (in small amounts though). Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are types of essential fats that our body needs for performing several functions, but cannot produce them on its own[10].

Coconut Oil Vs Olive Oil – Which is Healthier?

After taking into account the fat profile of both coconut and olive oil, it is pretty easy to figure out the winner – olive is clearly healthier than the coconut oil.

Although olive oil contains almost the same amount of calories and exactly the same amount of total fat as coconut oil, its fatty acids profile is drastically different. The most amount of fat present in olive oil comes from monounsaturated fatty acids, which, as discussed above, is a type of healthy fat. All the researchers and health experts agree on the fact that the most amount of required dietary fat should come from monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids. There is also consent on the fact that saturated fats should be avoided as much as possible to prevent health problems.

In view of all the factors discussed above, it can be said that olive oil is the healthier option as compared to coconut oil.

When it comes to olive oil, the extra-virgin variety is the best as it is the least processed one and hence, contains the highest amount of antioxidants. It also has a high smoke point – 376o Fahrenheit (191o Celsius) – which means it is perfectly safe for cooking.

The Take Away – Practice Moderation

Just because olive oil contains healthy fats doesn’t mean you can consume it in large quantities. No matter how healthy the type of fat or oil you are using is, moderation is the key to staying healthy.

According to the 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, no more than 35% of your daily calories (at max.) should come from fat.[11] So, make sure you follow the recommendations and consume fats in moderation, even if they are the good varieties.