When cooking and eating, it’s important to choose the most heart-healthy oils. Oils are a form of fat. Our bodies need fat for energy, digestion, vitamin absorption, and more. But too much of the wrong kind of fat can lead to heart disease.
When it comes to your health, "fat" is not necessarily a dirty word. You need some fat in your diet, and it actually performs some pretty impressive tasks like boosting energy, supporting cell growth, protecting your organs, keeping your body warm, and aiding in nutrient absorption and the manufacturing of hormones, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). And oils can be a great source of these healthy fats, but choosing the right variety is key.
Learn which oils to add to your diet for a health boost, and which you should leave on the shelf.
Oils With Health Benefits
“Olive oil is my favorite,” says Sara Haas, RD, LDN, a chef in Chicago and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Made from ripe olives, olive oil is a basic ingredient of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet and is best for drizzling on salads, pasta, and bread. It’s okay to use the oil for a quick sauté or for baking, but it has a low smoke point (the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and starts to smoke), so it’s not good for deep frying, says Beth Warren, MS, RD, a nutritionist in private practice in New York City and author of Living a Real Life With Real Food.
Canola oil is low in saturated fat, Haas says. Unhealthy saturated fat is solid at room temperature and comes mostly from animal products like meat and dairy. In 2006, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided that manufacturers could claim that 1 1/2 tablespoons of canola oil a day may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease when used instead of saturated fat. Canola oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil and can be used safely for cooking at high temperatures. It doesn’t have as much flavor as some other vegetable and seed oils, though, so you may not want to use it in recipes like salad dressings where you want the oil to add some flavor, Warren says.
Flaxseed oil is a good source of alpha-linoleic acid (ALA), one of three omega-3 fatty acids (olive and canola oils also contain omega-3s). You need dietary omega-3s since your body cannot make them on its own. Omega-3 fatty acids reduce inflammation, and thus may help lower the risk of cancer, according to the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Flaxseed oil may also help reduce symptoms of arthritis, but avoid it if you’re on a blood thinner since flaxseed oil may increase bleeding, advises the Arthritis Foundation. Flaxseed oil should not be heated, so it’s best to use in cold dishes like smoothies or salads, Warren says.
Avocado oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids and can promote healthy cholesterol levels and enhance absorption of some nutrients, according to a review of avocado benefits published in the May 2013 Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition. Avocado oil also has a high smoke point and is therefore one of the best oils for high-temperature cooking. It can be used for stir-frying, sautéing, or searing, Haas says.
While expensive, walnut oil contains heart-healthy omega-3s in addition to other nutrients, Haas says. Walnut oil is ideal for desserts and other recipes that benefit from a nutty flavor, adds Warren.
A staple in Asian and Indian cooking, sesame oil makes the AHA’s list of heart-healthy cooking oils. Use light sesame oil for stir-frying, and dark sesame oil when making dressings or sauces.
Grapeseed oil is low in saturated fat and has a high smoke point, which makes it a healthy choice for all kinds of cooking and grilling, says Warren. Its nutty but mild flavor also works well in salad dressings, or drizzled over roasted veggies.
Oils to Use With Caution
This oil is a controversial one. A solid at room temperature, coconut oil is a saturated fat — but not all saturated fats are created equal. “This isn’t the same as the saturated fat found in red meat that clogs your arteries,” says Warren. Coconut oil has a high amount of medium-chain fatty acids, which are harder for the body to convert into stored fat, she adds. However, the AHA advises those with high cholesterol to avoid coconut oil. “It would be difficult to get your LDL cholesterol into healthy ranges eating a lot of coconut oil,” agrees Kimberly Gomer, MS, RD, director of nutrition at the Pritikin Longevity Center in Miami.
Palm oil is also high in saturated fat. Because they're at risk for heart disease, people with diabetes should pay close attention to their saturated fat consumption and avoid sources of the fat like palm oil, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Oils labeled as "partially hydrogenated."
Most partially hydrogenated oils are made from vegetable oils like soybean or cottonseed, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Partially hydrogenated oils are trans fats — fats that the FDA claims have been shown to increase your risk for heart disease. Recently, the FDA ruled that manufacturers must remove all trans fats from their products by 2018. You should remove partially hydrogenated oils from your diet, too, Warren says.
What are the best types of oil for your heart?
- Monounsaturated fats
- Best oil to reduce risk of heart disease
- Polyunsaturated fats
- Contain Omega-3 fatty acids that help reduce the risk of heart disease
What are the worst types of oil for your heart?
- Trans Fats
- Man-made, listed as "partially hydrogenated oil" in the ingredients list of packaged foods.
- Increase risk of heart disease more than any other type of oil.
- Examples are margarine, shortening, powdered coffee creamer and packaged bakery items
- Saturated Fats
- Solid at room temperature. Most are animal based, but some are plant based and man-made.
- Increase risk of heart disease
- Examples are butter, lard, animal fat, full-fat dairy, tropical oils (coconut, palm, palm kernel), and "fully hydrogenated oils." Small quantities of virgin coconut oil may be used for specific dietary needs. Consult your dietitian.
The chart below lists the best oils for specific uses.
(Each teaspoon of oil has 40 calories and 4.5 grams of fat)
|Type of Oil||Browning, Searing, Pan-Frying||Stir-Frying, Baking||Sauteing, Sauces||Dressings, Dips, Marinades|
|Sunflower Oil (high-oleic)||X|
|Canola Oil||X (high-oleic)||X|
|Olive Oil||X (light or highly refined)||X||X (extra virgin)|
|Sesame Oil||X||X (toasted)|
Why is extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) better than regular olive oil?
Extra virgin olive oil contains more antioxidants when compared to refined versions of olive oil due to it being cold-pressed within 24 hours of picking the olives.
Is it ever OK to deep fry food?
No. Try lightly sautéing or stir-frying foods, instead, to bring out their true flavors.
Are cooking sprays safe?
Yes, according to the FDA. You can also fill a spray bottle with your favorite oil and use it instead of canned sprays.
Is it OK if my oil smokes in the pan?
No. If the oil starts smoking, get rid of it and start again so you aren’t exposed to toxic fumes and unhealthy byproducts. Vegetable, peanut and sesame oils can withstand high heat without smoking better than other oils can.
Can oil “go bad?”
Yes. Store oil in a cool, dark place. Put grapeseed and walnut oils in the refrigerator. Throw away any oil that smells bitter or “off.”