Health Tips

Like fats, not all oils are created equal. A single oil cannot be used for all of your cooking. Instead, a variety of oils should fill your pantry, each having a distinct place in the kitchen.

First, it’s best to understand the various types of fats, how they affect your heart-health, and what quantity of them you should consume on a regular basis.

Fats 101

The old mantra, “eat a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet,” to control heart disease is out of favor. Research has revealed that the total amount of fat you eat really isn’t linked to disease; it’s the type of fat you consume that has the greatest influence. Two unhealthy fats, saturated and trans, raise blood cholesterol and increase the risk for heart disease. Two very different types of fat – mono and polyunsaturated – do just the opposite.

The Unhealthy Fats

Saturated Fats

Most types of saturated fat raise LDL cholesterol and overall risk of developing cardiovascular disease. However, some forms of saturated fat have a neutral effect on cholesterol. The saturated fat found in butter, whole milk, cheese, beef and palm or coconut oil are considered “bad fats” because they increase risk of cardiovascular disease; whereas stearic acid, the primary fat found in dark chocolate, is neutral.

Trans Fatty Acids (Trans Fats)

Trans fats pack a double whammy on your heart disease risk – raising the “bad” cholesterol LDL, and lowering the “good” cholesterol, high-density lipoprotein (HDL). Trans fats occur naturally in some beef and dairy, but the main dietary source is packaged baked products like cookies, cakes, breads, crackers, as well as fast foods.

Trans fats were originally created to provide a cheap alternative to butter. Trans fats are formed when a liquid fat is converted to a solid one through a process called hydrogenation. As a result, the structure of the fat changes from a fairly healthy unsaturated fat to one similar to saturated fat. Many manufacturers use hydrogenated fats in their ingredients because it creates a product with an extended shelf life and improved consistency.

Healthy Fats

Unsaturated fats are considered the healthiest fats because they improve cholesterol, are associated with lower inflammation (a risk factor for heart disease), and are associated with overall lower risk of developing heart disease. Unsaturated fats are found primarily in plant-based foods; and are generally liquid at room temperature. There are two types of unsaturated fat, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated Fat

Considered one of the healthiest fat sources in the diet, monounsaturated fats should make up the bulk of your daily fat intake. It is best to consume monounsaturated fats as a replacement for foods high in saturated and trans fat; you will also benefit from replacing some of the refined carbohydrates in your diet with monounsaturated fats. Good sources are olive oil, canula oil, avocados, olives, most nuts (excluding walnuts) and nut butters.

Polyunsaturated Fat

There are two types of polyunsaturated fats, Omega-3 and Omega-6. Both must be obtained from dietary sources because the body cannot manufacture them on it’s own. Research has shown that Omega-3s help prevent and even treat heart disease and stroke. These benefits include lowering triglycerides, protecting against irregular heartbeats, decreasing risk of a heart attack, and lowering blood pressure. Good sources of Omega-3s come mainly from fish, but also from flaxseeds, walnuts, canola oil, and unhydrogenated soybean oil. Fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, herring, and sardines are especially good sources.

Omega-6 fatty acids also lower the risk for heart disease. Omega-6 can be found in vegetable oils like safflower, sunflower, soybean, and corn oils. Although Omega-6 fats play an important role in health, research suggests we get too much Omega-6 at the expense of Omega-3, which can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and inflammation. It’s best to try and curb your intake of Omega-6 (one easy way is to cut back on processed foods containing the above oils); and increase your intake of Omega-3, such as consuming walnuts and flaxseed on a regular basis, and including at least two meals from fatty fish each week.

Putting it Together – Quick Tips:

Focus your energy on the following strategies when it comes to fat:

  • Saturated fats – the fewer the better. Less than 7 percent of your daily fat calories should come from saturated fats. Eliminate whole and 2% dairy, and limit red meat and other animal protein at meals (reduced frequency, portion size, or both).
  • Trans fats – no redeeming value whatsoever; eliminate from the diet by avoiding foods that contain hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils in the ingredients list. Shortening and stick margarine also contain trans fat.
  • Monounsaturated fats – ramp up your intake of olives, avocados and nuts; and try and use olive oil and canola for most of your cooking and baking, respectively.
  • Polyunsaturated fats – you’re likely already getting too much Omega-6, so focus on increasing your intake of Omega-3 food sources like salmon and walnuts.

Cooking with Oils – Suggested List

Since all heart-healthy fats are derived primarily from plant oils, the following cooking primer relates to oils only.

As stated previously, no single oil can be used for all cooking methods. The following table emphasizes those oils that can be used for your chosen cooking method. Due to their chemical makeup, some oils are better suited for lower heat cooking than others. This is important because heating oil above it’s smoke point – the temperature at which the oil begins to smoke – produces toxic fumes and harmful free radicals (the stuff we’re trying to prevent in the first place). A good rule of thumb to follow: the more refined the oil, the higher it’s smoke point.

The table below outlines a number of common cooking oils. We’ve broken these fats into High, Medium-High, Medium or No Heat so you know which ones you can cook at what temperatures.

High Smoke Point

Best suited for searing, browning, deep-frying. Deep frying not a recommended practice where heart-health is concerned.

Cooking Oil % Mono % Poly % Sat Nutrition Notes
Almond 65 28 7
Avocado 65 18 17
Hazelnut 82 11 7
Palm 38 10 52 High in saturated fat (primarily from palmitic acid, which research indicates raises blood cholesterol). Not recommended.
Sunflower 79 7 14 Seek out high-oleic versions (which are higher in monounsaturated fat).
"Light" Olive/Refined Olive 79 8 14 The more refined the olive oil, the better the use for all-purpose cooking. “Light” olive oil only refers to it’s color, not fat or calorie composition.

Medium-High Smoke Point

Best suited for baking, oven cooking, or stir-frying.

Cooking Oil % Mono % Poly % Sat Nutrition Notes
Canola 62 31 7 Contains small levels of Omega-3
Grapeseed 17 73 10 High in Omega-6, choose sparingly
Macadamia Nut 84 3 13 Bold flavor
Extra Virgin Olive 78 8 14 Best pick oil!
Peanut 48 34 18 Great for stir-frying

Medium Smoke Point

Best suited for light sautéing, sauces, and low-heat baking.

Cooking Oil % Mono % Poly % Sat Nutrition Notes
Corn 25 62 13 High in omega-6. High-oleic (monounsaturated fat) versions coming soon.
Hemp 15 75 10 Good source of Omega-3. Keep refrigerated.
Pumpkinseed 32 53 15 Contains Omega-3.
Sesame 41 44 15 Rich, nutty flavor. Keep refrigerated.
Soybean 25 60 15 High in Omega-6.
Walnut 24 67 9 Good source of Omega-3.
Coconut 6 2 92 Contains high amount of saturated fat (primarily from lauric acid, which research indicates raises blood cholesterol). Not recommended.

No Heat Oils

Best used for dressings, dips or marinades.

Cooking Oil % Mono % Poly % Sat Nutrition Notes
Flaxseed 18 75 7 Excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid, a form of omega-3. Keep refrigerated; even when refrigerated, has a short shelf-life (up to 6 weeks)
Wheat Germ 22 61 17 Rich in omega-6. Keep refrigerated.

* toasted sesame, extra virgin olive, and walnut would also serve well here.

Although choosing the right fats and right cooking method for that fat is important, proper portion control must be considered. Too much of a “good thing” is no longer healthy, so always make sure you include healthy unsaturated fats as a part of a diet rich in plant foods – fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains – and low in animal fats.

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