Eating healthy fats helps you absorb fat-soluble nutrients and reduces your risk of chronic disease. In this avocado oil vs coconut oil face off, we compare the health benefits and risks to determine the healthiest oil.
Want to learn which oil comes out ahead? Let’s dive in!
A Primer on Fat
Fat sometimes gets a bad rap, partly because certain fats have been shown to increase heart disease and obesity risk. However, not all fats are bad, and eating healthy fats is essential to good health.
Functions of Fats and Oils in Your Diet
|Fats provide energy in the form of calories. All fat provides 9 calories per gram, regardless of the type of fat.|
|Fats help protect your organs and keep your body warm by creating fat in your body. Don’t let this scare you though- a moderate amount of body fat is crucial for good health!|
|Fats help you absorb fat-soluble vitamins and nutrients from your food.|
|Fats help promote brain health. Your brain is mostly composed of fat and requires healthy fats to function properly (1).|
All those leafy greens and colorful veggies are loaded with fat-soluble nutrients, but without a little fat to help out, your body cannot absorb them.
What type of oil you consume has a tremendous impact on the function of your cells because every cell membrane (outer layer) is made up of fats. The type of fats in the cell membrane help determine how well that cell functions.
Fats are made up of individual molecules called fatty acids. There are basically three types of fatty acids found naturally in oils: saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated, and they each have different impacts on your health.
Fats and oils generally consist of a combination of two or three types of fatty acids.
Saturated fats are typically solid at room temperature and are generally considered unhealthy. Most saturated fats come from animal foods like meat, cheese, and whole milk. Some tropical plant oils, such as palm and coconut oil, are high in saturated fat as well.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends limiting saturated fat intake to less than 6% of total daily calories, or approximately 13 grams of saturated fat a day, to reduce the risk of heart disease.
The AHA suggests that replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats rather than carbohydrates and sugars can help lower triglyceride and cholesterol levels (4).
However, some studies have found little or no association between saturated fat intake and cardiovascular disease risk (5).
The controversy over whether saturated fat intake increases your risk of heart disease requires more research to be conclusive. Until more information is available, it may make sense to play it safe and limit saturated fat intake.
Foods High in Saturated Fat
Monounsaturated fats are a type of unsaturated fat. They are liquid at room temperature and become semi-solid or solid when chilled. Generally considered a good fat, monounsaturated fats can help you reduce your risk of heart disease, lose weight, and fight inflammation.
Oleic acid, an Omega-9 fat, is a common monounsaturated fatty acid with many health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, reducing cholesterol, improving brain function, and helping to prevent diabetes (6). It is produced by the body, and is found in olive oil, nuts and avocados.
Oleic acid is prevalent in the Mediterranean diet (link) and may account for many of the diet’s health benefits.
Foods High in Monounsaturated Fat
Polyunsaturated fats, like monounsaturated fats, are considered healthy fats because of their disease-fighting benefits. The three primary types of polyunsaturated fat are Omega-3, Omega-6, and the lesser known Omega-9 fats.
Both Omega-3 and Omega-6 fats are essential fats, meaning you must get them from food because your body cannot make them.
This is important because while Omega-6s are prevalent in the Standard American Diet (the typical American diet) and often found in processed foods, Omega-3s are more difficult to come by and may require a conscious effort to consume in adequate amounts.
The optimal ratio of Omega-6 to Omega-3 is somewhere between 1:1 and 4:1 (7, 8). On average, Americans consume a ratio of 15:1 or more, demonstrating the importance of increasing Omega-3 fat intake (9) and/or decreasing Omega-6.
Omega-3 fats are heart-healthy fats that help lower triglyceride levels and reduce the risk of heart disease (10). They also help you maintain muscle, reduce inflammation, improve immunity, and alleviate joint pain from osteoarthritis (11).
Top Sources of Omega-3 Fats
Like Omega-3s, Omega-6s are considered beneficial for health. However, because they are often consumed in such high amounts, many people would benefit from focusing on Omega-3 intake.
Top Sources of Omega-6 Fats
About Avocado Oil
Avocado oil is an edible vegetable oil extracted from the meat of avocados. It has a smooth, nutty flavor with a hint of (you guessed it!) avocado.
Avocado oil is a great source of oleic acid, a healthy monounsaturated fat that is also the main component in olive oil. Avocado oil primarily consists of monounsaturated fats, with only 12% saturated and 13% polyunsaturated fats (12).
Cooking With Avocado Oil
The light, fresh flavor of avocado oil makes it an excellent oil for cooking. Avocado oil has a very high smoke point, which means you can cook with it at higher temperatures without the oil beginning to smoke, making it ideal for sautéing, broiling, or stir frying.
With a smoke point of 570° F, avocado oil has a higher smoke point than most other oils and even butter. It is also delicious in salad dressings and marinades.
Health Benefits of Avocado Oil
Avocado consumption is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease (13). Adding avocado oil to your diet may help reduce triglycerides, cholesterol, blood sugar (14) and blood pressure levels (15).
Protects Your Eyes
Avocado is a good source of lutein and zeaxanthin, carotenoids that help protect your eyes (16). These powerful antioxidants are found in the eye and are thought to protect the retina from damaging ultraviolet rays from sunlight.
Zeaxanthin and lutein are important to help prevent age-related macular degeneration and cataracts (17, 18). Your body is not able to produce lutein, so you must consume it through food, and avocado is a very good source (19, 20).
Help You Get (or Stay) Slim
Brain and Skin Health
Avocados and avocado oil have potent antioxidants that may help protect your brain from free radicals and reduce the risk of cognitive decline and dementia (23).
The carotenoids in avocado oil and avocado help protect your skin against the UV rays of the sun. In one study, women experienced a significant improvement in skin elasticity and firmness after eating avocado every day for 8 weeks (24).
About Coconut Oil
Coconut oil is extracted from the pulp of a coconut. Touted as beneficial in popular diets such as paleo and ketogenic, coconut oil is a fat that is predominantly a saturated fat (80-90%).
Coconut oil is rich in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), a type of fat found in coconuts, milk fat, and palm kernel oil. MCTs are metabolized differently than long chain triglycerides – they are burned off more quickly and less likely to be stored as fat.
Thus, coconut oil has gained a reputation as providing a quick energy boost and beneficial for weight loss.
The truth is a little complicated and not all experts agree. Many of the weight loss benefits of coconut oil are attributed to its MCT content and are based on studies looking at pure (100%) MCT oil (25, 26). However, coconut oil is made up of only 54% MCTs (27).
Unfortunately, coconut oil has not shown the same weight loss benefits as pure MCT oil in recent studies (28, 29). One study showed that MCT oil is more satiating than coconut oil, making you feel fuller longer and promoting weight loss (30).
Cooking With Coconut Oil
Solid at room temperature, coconut oil has a melting point of 78°F, and is available in both refined and virgin varieties.
Virgin coconut oil has a tropical, coconutty flavor and aroma, with a smoke point of 350°F. Refined coconut oil has a more neutral flavor and scent and a higher smoke point (400°F). Coconut oil has a significantly lower smoke point than avocado oil.
Coconut oil is excellent for searing and sautéing and can be used for baking. In baking, you can replace butter with coconut oil provided you use solid, room temperature coconut oil.
Health Benefits of Coconut Oil
Virgin coconut oil is rich in phenolic acids, powerful plant compounds that help to reduce cell damage from free radicals (31). Virgin coconut oil has better antioxidant power than refined coconut oil (32). It may help reduce oxidative stress from intense physical activity (33) and may also help protect the body from inflammation caused by air pollution (34).
Protects Against Age-related Brain Diseases
Numerous studies show coconut oil may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease (35, 36). When combined with a Mediterranean diet, coconut oil consumption can improve cognitive function in individuals with Alzheimer’s disease (37). Coconut oil may also help prevent Parkinson’s disease (38).
Bonus! Improve Your Skin
When applied topically, coconut oil helps reduce skin inflammation and improve the skin’s barrier. For this reason, coconut oil may decrease the severity of atopic dermatitis and contact dermatitis (39, 40, 41). It also makes coconut oil an excellent full-body moisturizer.
The ability of coconut oil to protect the skin’s barrier makes it useful for those who regularly use alcohol-based hand sanitizers (42). It can soothe dry skin and protect sensitive skin from irritants.
You can find coconut oil in skin creams and lotions, and for good reason. However, you can use coconut oil straight from the jar to maximize benefit and reduce cost.
Conflicting Evidence on Heart Health (A Little Controversy…)
A recent analysis of 16 studies found that the consumption of coconut oil increases LDL-cholesterol significantly more than other vegetable oils (43). For this reason, the American Heart Association does not recommend using coconut oil for heart health (44).
Other studies have found when high carbohydrate, sugary foods are replaced by coconut oil, LDL cholesterol levels decrease (45).
When coconut oil replaces carbohydrates, cholesterol levels go down. When coconut oil replaces other oils, cholesterol levels increase. This is an important distinction because most often people will use coconut oil to replace another oil, rather than using it to replace carbohydrates.
The bottom line is, proceed with caution if you are considering using coconut oil to help prevent heart disease.
Avocado Oil vs Coconut Oil: The Verdict
Which of these plant-based oils is the best oil for you?
If you are looking for a good cooking oil, avocado oil is amongst the healthiest and most versatile cooking oils, thanks to its high smoke point and neutral flavor.
On the other hand, if you would like healthier, younger-looking skin, coconut oil is a good option for you. When applied topically, coconut oil is an economical way to improve the skin barrier and help fight damage from free radicals that can age your skin.
Overall, avocado oil provides more health benefits and is more versatile for cooking and eating than coconut oil. But if brain health is a concern, adding moderate amounts of coconut oil to your diet may help you prevent and/or manage Alzheimer’s disease.
Pam is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist with a Master’s of Public Health and a Certificate in Integrative and Functional Nutrition. Passionate about the science of health and nutrition, she loves to share her knowledge to help others live healthy, vibrant lives. When not working, Pam can be found hiking, traveling, and enjoying great-tasting, nutritious food.