You’re trying to follow a diet that’s heart-healthy. You’re eating lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, fish and nuts (go you!). But you’re not sure what the best choice is when it comes to cooking oils.
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You might have read that olive oil and coconut oil are good for your heart health. But is that true, and if so, which is better? Registered dietitian Kate Patton, MEd, RD, CSSD, LD, sets the record straight.
With a quick look at the nutrition label, you might think that these two kinds of oils are very similar. Both olive oil and coconut oil have about the same number of calories (120 per tablespoon) and grams of fat (14 per tablespoon). But not all fat is created equal.
Breaking down the types of fat in these two oils paints a better picture of why olive oil is a staple of the Mediterranean diet, which is regarded as the heart-healthiest diet, while coconut oil is not.
When you dress a green salad in extra virgin olive oil, you’re getting mostly unsaturated fat – the kind you’ve probably heard called “good” or “healthy” fat. It’s the kind you also get from eating avocados and nuts.
Research links eating unsaturated fat to a number of heart benefits, including some protection against inflammation, lower levels of LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol, and reduced blood pressure when they’re eaten in place of saturated fats.
There are two types of unsaturated fat: monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. Olive oil contains mostly monounsaturated fat (about 10 or 11 grams per tablespoon, compared to coconut oil’s 1 gram per tablespoon).
Polyunsaturated fats – which includes omega-3 and certain omega-6 fatty acids – are also beneficial for your heart. You’ll find these in fish, walnuts and flaxseeds.
Coconut oil is much higher in saturated fat – one tablespoon has about 13 grams of saturated fat, compared to olive oil’s 1 gram.
Some argue that saturated fat has also been shown to raise HDL (good) cholesterol, which maintains the right ratio of cholesterol levels. More research is needed.
“We don’t recommend completely avoiding saturated fat, but we do recommend swapping them out for mono- or polyunsaturated fats when you can,” Patton says.
With so many options on the grocery store shelf, it can be hard to know what’s best to buy. Generally, extra virgin or unrefined oils are the least processed and pack the most benefits.
Extra virgin olive oil, for example, has more beneficial antioxidants than regular or light olive oil and is best used in dressings, dips and marinades. Be sure to keep it away from heat, light and air to preserve its quality. Refined olive oil has a more neutral flavor and makes for a better all-purpose cooking oil, but it contains fewer antioxidants.
Coconut oil also comes in refined and unrefined varieties. Unrefined, or virgin, coconut oil has more antioxidants and a stronger coconut flavor than refined coconut oil, which undergoes more processing to neutralize the taste and make it more suitable for high-temperature cooking.
Remember, many of the other foods we eat have fat in them, so it’s important to control our intake of added fats like oils. “Even healthier oils like olive oil can add up quickly,” Patton says.
Aim to keep your fat intake between 25%-35% of you daily calories, and to prioritize healthy unsaturated fats.
It’s recommended that saturated fat – which comes not just from coconut oil but also from foods like meat, cheese and other dairy products – account for no more than 10% of your daily calories (or 6% if you have high cholesterol). That’s about 22 grams of saturated fat a day (or 13 grams, if you have high cholesterol) for someone who eats about 2,000 calories per day.