The hypothesis that olive-oil consumption alters plasma sphingomyelin concentrations and hepatic sphingomyelin metabolism was tested. Rats were fed on purified, high-cholesterol diets with either coconut fat or olive-oil (180 g/kg). In accordance with previous work, olive-oil v. coconut-fat consumption significantly elevated hepatic and total plasma cholesterol concentrations. During the course of the experiment, the concentration of plasma sphingomyelin rose in the coconut-fat group and remained constant in the olive-oil group. When compared with the coconut-fat-fed group, the plasma sphingomyelin levels were significantly lower in the olive-oil-fed group after 14 and 21 d of treatment. Dietary olive oil raised the amounts of cholesterol and sphingomyelin in the VLDL density region, and this change was associated with a reduction in the cholesterol and sphingomyelin contents of the LDL and HDL density ranges. Olive-oil consumption reduced the activity of serine palmitoyltransferase, while the activities of phosphatidylcholine:ceramide cholinephosphotransferase and phosphatidylethanolamine:ceramide ethanolaminephosphotransferase were left unchanged. Dietary olive oil also enhanced the activity of acidic sphingomyelinase, but not that of neutral sphingomyelinase. The present data indicate that dietary olive oil v. coconut fat has opposite effects on total plasma cholesterol and sphingomyelin concentrations. The lower plasma sphingomyelin levels observed in olive-oil-fed, as compared with coconut-fat-fed rats, may be explained by a simultaneous elevation and reduction in sphingomyelin catabolism and synthesis respectively, as based on the measured enzyme activities.