If you visit the cooking oil aisle at your grocery store, you may be overwhelmed by the options: extra-virgin olive oil, canola oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, avocado oil … how do you choose what’s right for you? Jeanice Skousen, MDA, RDN, LD, a dietitian at Piedmont Athens Regional, shares her tips for selecting the best cooking oil for your health and recipe.
“For decades, fats have gotten a bad rap,” says Skousen. “Now, people go to extremes with either low-fat or high-fat diets. I like to encourage people that fats are essential and can be part of a healthy diet, but I don’t recommend overdoing it. Everything in moderation.”
Why you need fat in your diet
Skousen says fat is an important part of a healthy diet.
“Essential fatty acids are necessary for healthy cell membranes, proper development of the brain and nervous system, and the production of hormone substances that regulate the immune system.”
Fats can also help you better absorb nutrients like vitamins A, D and E, and can help you feel more satisfied from your meals.
Which cooking oils are healthiest?
Skousen says she recommends avocado oil and extra-virgin olive oil, particularly for anyone who wants to reduce their risk of cancer or cancer recurrence.
“These two are high in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids,” she says. “Omega-3s are great because they are anti-inflammatory. Research shows a protective relationship between omega-3s and the risk of chronic diseases, including various cancers.”
She also recommends flaxseed and walnut oil, which are high in monounsaturated fat and omega-3s. However, they should only be used for finishing a dish or salad dressings because of their lower smoke point.
The unhealthiest cooking oils
Skousen says you should avoid oils or fats high in trans fats or hydrogenated fats, like stick margarine and vegetable shortening.
“Trans fatty acids have been shown to increase bad LDL cholesterol and decrease good HDL cholesterol,” she says. “This increases your risk of heart disease and other chronic illnesses.”
She also recommends avoiding or limiting oils high in omega-6 fatty acids. This includes:
Common vegetable oils (such as soybean or grapeseed oil)
“Omega-6s promote inflammation in the body and have the potential to increase your blood pressure, allergic reactions and platelet aggregation,” she says. “Research shows that the proportion of omega-3s and omega-6s is important. You want to include more oils rich in omega-3s and cut back on oils high in omega-6s.”
Reducing inflammation plays a critical role in preventing and treating chronic diseases like cancer.
Is coconut oil healthy?
Coconut oil is a popular and controversial cooking oil. Coconut oil is 90% saturated fat and is solid at room temperature.
“The research on coconut oil is inconsistent,” says Skousen. “Traditionally, we’ve been told to limit saturated fatty acids because they can increase the risk of heart disease. But recent research is conflicting on the effect of saturated fats in heart disease. Studies have found an association between coconut oil and higher levels of good HDL cholesterol. However, coconut oil consumption may also raise bad LDL cholesterol, total cholesterol and serum triglycerides, all of which are risk factors for heart disease.”
Coconut oil is high in medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are beneficial, she says.
“MCTs are easily absorbed and thus beneficial for the treatment of fat absorption disorders, such as cystic fibrosis, celiac disease, Crohn’s disease and pancreatitis,” says Skousen.
The bottom line: “Coconut oil is not a miracle food, but it can be used for cooking and baking in moderation,” she says. “It shouldn’t be your sole source of fat.”
Is butter healthy or unhealthy?
“Butter is similar to coconut oil in that there are conflicting studies,” says Skousen. “There is more available research showing that animal fats like butter increase bad LDL cholesterol and triglycerides.”
She says it’s OK to use butter sparingly and occasionally, but recommends avocado oil and extra-virgin olive oil for everyday use.
How much fat and oil should you eat daily?
Fat is higher in calories per gram of weight than carbohydrates and protein, so it’s important to be mindful of portion size.
“The recommendation for cooking oils and fats is about 3 teaspoons per day based on a 2,000-calorie diet,” says Skousen.
This doesn’t include fats found in other foods, like eggs, nuts and seeds.
If you’re using a condiment that contains oil, like salad dressing or mayonnaise, she advises sticking to a portion size of 2 to 3 tablespoons.
Cooking oil smoke points
It’s also essential to pay attention to each cooking oil’s smoke point and use the appropriate oil for your cooking method. An oil’s smoke point is the temperature at which it starts to smoke and break down.
“When oils break down, they begin to lose valuable nutrients like polyphenols and antioxidants, they may taste bitter and unpleasant, and they can generate free radicals, which damage cells in the body,” says Skousen.
Here are the smoke points for healthier cooking oils:
Avocado oil: 520 degrees Fahrenheit
Extra-virgin olive oil: 325 degrees
Coconut oil: 350 degrees
Refined olive oil: 465 degrees
Sesame oil (untoasted): 350 to 410 degrees
Walnut, flaxseed and toasted sesame oils: Best left unheated
How to use healthy cooking oils
Skousen says avocado oil is ideal for:
Extra-virgin olive oil and sesame oil is best for:
Flaxseed and walnut oil are good for:
Drizzling on top of dishes to add flavor
Why you should avoid highly processed cooking oils
When shopping for cooking oil, look for one that’s as unrefined as possible.
“Oils are refined through filtering, bleaching or heating, which removes their volatile compounds,” says Skousen. “Refining them makes them shelf-stable, gives them a neutral taste and increases their smoke point, but it also destroys some beneficial nutrients and enzymes.”
She recommends choosing oils that are labeled:
To keep oils as fresh and nutrient-rich as possible, store them in a cool, dark place and use them within a year of opening.
“Picking healthier unrefined cooking oils gives you the most health benefits and is best for your body long-term,” says Skousen.
Check out more nutrition tips from Cancer Wellness experts.