Oil – we use it in frying, baking, salad dressing and even covering the entire cake around it. While oils are not a major food group, they’re still an important source of unsaturated fats and vitamin E that improve high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol levels.
But some oils contain trans fat, often used in restaurant deep fryers.
So how do you figure out which oil is the healthiest choice? Here’s what a registered dietitian has to say.
What’s the healthiest oil to cook with?
The oil at the grocery store may go on for the entire aisle, so how do you know which bottle to choose for the healthiest results? The answer isn’t so straightforward, says registered dietitian Abbey Sharp.
“Variety is the spice of life,” he says, pointing out that different types of oils contain varied fat content. “All of those different fatty acids have unique benefits and roles in the body, so the healthiest diet is one that includes a variety of different fats.”
One of Sharp’s favorite oils is flax seed oil because it’s rich in omega-3 fatty acids, but it has a low smoke point that makes it difficult to cook with. For cooking, Sharp has two favorites – avocado oil and olive oil.
“Both have really great, favorable monounsaturated fat and polyunsaturated fat profiles, so likely to decrease LDL, which is bad cholesterol and increase our HDL,” Sharp says. “Plus, avocado oil has 50% of your daily vitamin D for the day and a lot of other antioxidants.”
Sharp recommends going with a more unrefined oil because the refinement process depletes some of the important nutrients. But, Sharp says, those oils also tend to be more expensive and have a shorter shelf life. Oil in moderation, even if it’s refined, isn’t bad for you.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the four main types of fat present in different types of oils and foods:
- trans fats: Usually found in the form of partially hydrogenated oil, known to increase the risk of heart disease, stroke and type two diabetes
- Saturated fat: Most commonly found in meat, butter and coconut oil and has often been touted as “bad,” but studies have found that there is no significant link between saturated fat and cardiovascular disease
- Monounsaturated fat: A heart-healthier option compared to trans and saturated fat that increases HDL levels
- Polyunsaturated fat: Contains beneficial omega-3 fatty acids (often found in fish, walnuts and hemp hearts) and omega-6 fatty acids
“The quick and dirty of it is that we should be less concerned about total saturated fat intake compared to our ratio of saturated to unsaturated fats,” Sharp says.
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Is canola oil bad for you?
Canola oil has been deemed an unhealthy or dangerous oil option by many in the online health community. But canola oil is not bad for you in moderation, Sharp says, and she sees it gets a bad rap because of misinformation about it being an “inflammatory” food due to its omega-6 content.
“Omega-6s in isolation are not an issue in our health,” Sharp says. “They are inflammatory, but when it comes down to understanding inflammation in the body, it actually comes down to the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.”
In reality, the oil has a favorable ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 and is low in saturated fats.
“The reason why it’s been so heavily demonized is it is typically found in a lot of highly processed foods because it is just so readily available and easy to work with,” Sharp says, referring to canola oil’s long shelf stability and good smoke point. “But that doesn’t mean that the oil itself is toxic or poisonous.”
Is cooking with oil bad for you?
The internet is full of posts promoting no-oil diets or the dangers of consuming oil at all. These attitudes are harmful, Sharp says.
Sharp’s online profile is dedicated to dismantling diet culture with science. Misinformation and fear-mongering around food is why she decided to take her nutrition background online in the first place.
“There are so many young people on TikTok who are consuming this information and getting the majority of their health knowledge from TikTok,” Sharp says.
You shouldn’t be afraid to incorporate oil in your diet, she says, because the way we consume oil is designed to be in moderation – you’re adding a tablespoon or two to a pan, not drinking a glass of it.
“The reality is I don’t recommend people aiming to get a bulk of their nutrients from cooking oil, period,” Sharp says. “I think we can utilize oils in moderation as a way to enhance the cooking process and enhance the flavor (and) get some heart-healthy fats in there.”
The energy she wants her followers to put into their diet is whole foods, rather than something like oil. Those are the decisions that will give you a full, satisfying, nutritionally dense plate, like adding a whole avocado to your diet rather than trying to get those nutrients from a few tablespoons of avocado oil.
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