Mark Hyman, MD
For most health-conscious Americans, olive oil has become a dietary staple. It is a central feature of the Mediterranean diet (an eating plan that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, whole grains and fish) and has been shown in numerous studies to help guard against heart disease when used as a substitute for butter, margarine or oils that are higher in saturated fat.
The most healthful variety of olive oil is extra virgin olive oil, which is extracted from olives without the use of chemicals. It is the least processed and contains the highest levels of disease-fighting antioxidants. But olive oil is not the only oil that is good for you.
Alternatives to olive oil
Among the oils that provide health benefits similar to those of olive oil are almond, flaxseed, walnut and macadamia nut oils. These oils are available at health-food stores (and even at many supermarkets) and can be used in cooking and/or baking as well as on salads.
Although these nut- and seed-derived oils usually are more expensive than vegetable oils -- a 16-ounce bottle of flaxseed oil costs about $15 versus about $5 for the same size bottle of refined soy oil -- a little goes a long way, and their distinctive flavors will add variety to your cooking.
Sources of Dietary FAT
To function properly, our bodies require dietary fat. It serves not only as an energy source, but also helps our bodies absorb fat-soluble vitamins, including vitamins A, D, E and K, from the food we eat. When used properly, cooking oils can be an excellent source of healthful dietary fat.
Most of the fats in your diet should be monounsaturated and omega-3 fats. For the greatest health benefit, a combination of the fats described below should be consumed, since each provides a different nutritional component.
Best sources of dietary fat...
Omega-3 fatty acids are found in fatty, cold-water fish (salmon, herring, sardines and anchovies)... walnuts... some seeds (pumpkin seeds, hempseeds and flaxseeds)... and flaxseed oil.
According to some studies, as many as 70% of Americans are deficient in these essential fats. Omega-3s have been shown to reduce the risk for heart attack, depression and stroke, and perhaps help protect against prostate and breast malignancies as well as some types of dementia.
Monounsaturated fat is found in avocados, some nut oils and olive oil. This fat boosts immunity and helps lower blood pressure, blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Monounsaturated fat, in the form of olive oil, is the primary source of fat in the Mediterranean diet.
Unrefined polyunsaturated fat is found in walnut oil and natural vegetable oils that have not been chemically processed. This fat is a source of omega-6 fatty acids, which can be harmful when consumed in the high amounts that are typical in the American diet. However, small doses (no more than one tablespoon daily) of unrefined polyunsaturated fat are necessary to provide a healthful ratio of omega-6 to omega-3.
Important: When selecting an unrefined vegetable oil, be sure that it is "expeller-pressed" or "cold-pressed" -- this means that the oil has been processed without chemicals, using pressure rather than heat.
Caution: Commercially available, refined "vegetable oils," including corn and soy oils, are commonly used in restaurant food and still can be found in the kitchen cabinets of many Americans. However, these oils are best avoided, due to the harmful compounds that are produced in the process of refining.
Food products that typically should be eliminated are all foods containing trans fats (partially hydrogenated oils) that are widely found in cookies, crackers and other processed foods.
What about canola oil?
Although many Americans use canola oil, I do not recommend it at this time. There have been no long-term medical studies of canola oil, a relatively new food made from a plant similar to the rapeseed plant, which is part of the mustard family. Moreover, animal studies have linked canola oil with reduced platelet count, shorter lifespan and increased need for vitamin E. In contrast, olive and nut oils have been used for centuries... and have proven health benefits.
HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?
Even though cooking oils can be a healthful addition to your diet, they are pure fat. All oils contain about 14 g of fat or 126 calories per tablespoon. This should be factored into your total daily intake of fat.
Helpful: Cooking oils have different smoke points -- the temperature at which heated fat begins to break down, releasing smoke and giving a burned taste to food. Oils that have smoke points of about 350º F or higher, and therefore are good for sautéing and stir-frying (cooking quickly over high heat while stirring continuously) include almond oil, macadamia nut oil and sesame oil. Oils with low smoke points -- about 225º F -- include flaxseed oil and unrefined sunflower oil. They are best used raw and/or in baking.
Kay’s Notes: Grapeseed Oil is another healthy oil for cooking over high heat. Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a low smoke point, is extremely healthy and is best for salad dressings and baking.