When it comes to your health, olive oil and coconut oil are like two of your closest friends.
Olive oil is the friend you’ve known since grade school who’s completely dependable and always supports you. Coconut oil is the new friend you made as an adult who’s always up on the latest trend and exposes you to all kinds of things you didn’t have access to before.
You need both of them, right? But what if your schedule’s gotten 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: We’re talking about olive oil vs. coconut oil, not people.)
Here are the facts on which is healthier: olive oil or coconut oil.
Olive oil vs. Coconut Oil: Fats
Olive oil contains some saturated fat as well as minimal omega-3s and omega-6s, but the star of its fatty acid profile (what a title!) 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 (AKA bad) cholesterol, both of which are associated with heart disease.
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 changed that thinking, and the saturated fat in coconut oil has actually been found to raise your good (HDL) cholesterol and lower triglycerides (fats in your blood that raise heart disease risk).
MCTs are also quickly metabolized and turned into energy, which means less stored fat—and some research suggests that means coconut oil may be superior for weight loss.
Some preliminary evidence even suggests coconut oil’s fat profile may also help prevent or treat Alzheimer’s disease (because of the way MCTs are broken down into molecules the brain can use as fuel), but the research is far from conclusive.
Olive Oil vs. Coconut Oil: Antioxidants
Olive oil has a reputation for being rich in antioxidants for a reason. It’s filled with bioavailable phenolic compounds that have been found to have multiple, varied positive health effects like decreasing oxidative damage to DNA and lowering inflammatory markers.
Olive Oil Vs. Coconut Oil: Quality
Finally, a science break (sort of)! There are a few factors that don’t necessarily have to do with straight-up nutrition facts that are worth considering.
First, it may seem like olive oil is significantly cheaper than coconut, tempting you to opt for olive. That is sometimes true, but fraud is also rampant in the olive oil industry. So, if an imported bottle of EVOO is crazy cheap, that’s probably because it’s watered down with fake, or heavily processed, oils. Opt for extra-virgin, cold-pressed olive and virgin, cold-pressed coconut—and do some homework first on brands you can trust.
You may have also heard that because olive oil has a lower smoke point, you shouldn’t use it for cooking at higher heats because it will break down and become carcinogenic. Most research actually shows olive oil is very resistant to oxidation even at high heats (likely due to those incredible antioxidants!). Coconut oil does have a higher smoke point if you want to err on the side of caution and primarily use olive oil for cold foods and coconut for hot.
The Bottom Line
When it comes to research-backed health benefits, high-quality extra-virgin olive oil wins. Especially when you consider 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.
But 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 when you want savory, Mediterranean flavor and another when you’re craving tropical and sweet. Just look for extra-virgin and cold-pressed varieties from trusted brands, and stock your pantry with both options.