You don’t have to give up cooking oils when you’re struggling with high cholesterol. In fact, cooking with liquid vegetable oils lets you sidestep the saturated fats found in solids like butter and lard. Cooking oils work as part of heart-healthy diets because they contain mostly unsaturated fats which don’t contribute to high cholesterol, stroke, or heart disease. “All vegetable oils, with the possible exception of coconut oil, are good for fighting high cholesterol as part of a heart-healthy diet,” says Joy Bauer, MS, RD, nutrition and health expert for the Today show and best-selling author.
“All oils are a combination of many fatty acids,” says Seth J. Baum, MD, a cardiologist at Preventive Cardiology Inc. in Boca Raton, Florida. The various cooking oils have nearly the same number of calories per tablespoon, tbsp, from 102 to 124, but each oil has a different amount of healthy fat — known as “unsaturated” fat. Oils from animal products all contain the less healthy saturated fats as well as cholesterol. Certain vegetable cooking oils, the tropical oils like coconut, also have saturated fats. You can think of saturated fats as “full” fats because they have more hydrogen packed into them, and unsaturated fats as somewhat lighter.
Other exceptions include palm oil and palm kernel oil, which are high in unhealthy fats. While people often turn to olive oil first, there are actually many cooking oils on supermarket shelves, some of which can naturally enhance heart health. “Identifying these oils and using them in place of oils that don’t promote heart health can go a long way in heart disease prevention,” says Kari Kooi, MS, RD, clinical dietitian specialist at the Methodist Hospital in Houston.
Start With Olive Oil
A recent study in the journal Neurology found that older people who included lots of olive oil in their diets had a 41 percent lower risk of stroke than people who didn’t use olive oil. In fact, olive oil has been shown to lower bad cholesterol and increase good cholesterol, and it’s loaded with antioxidants that are good for heart health. But don’t overdo it, Bauer warns. “Olive oil is good for high cholesterol but does have lots of calories (this is true for all oils), so you will be defeating the purpose if you use too much.” There are two types of olive oil:
- Extra-virgin. Extra-virgin olive oils, made from the first pressing of the olives, have been graded highest for aroma and flavor. They are more expensive, so you may want to use them sparingly. “Extra-virgin olive oils are best used for sautéing and drizzling over fresh or roasted vegetables,” says Kooi.
- Regular. “Regular olive oil is just as good for cooking as extra-virgin, but all olive oils smoke at high heat,” says Bauer. Heating any cooking oil beyond its smoke point ruins its benefits. Also, because of its marked flavor, olive oil isn’t a good choice for baking, Bauer adds.
Basic Cooking Oils: Grapeseed, Canola, Peanut, and Corn
These cooking oils are all interchangeable and great, all-purpose oils. “They are good for baking because they have a neutral flavor,” says Bauer. Here are the specifics:
- Grapeseed oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids and has only 10 percent saturated fat. This cooking oil smokes at medium-high heat and can be used for stir-frying. Omega-6 fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids work together in a heart-healthy diet to lower high cholesterol.
- Canola oil contains low levels of omega-3 fatty acids and has only 7 percent saturated fat.
- Peanut oil is great for high-temperature cooking like stir-frying, “because of its high smoke point,” says Kooi. “Many of the peanut oils on the market have been chemically processed to have a mild flavor. Look for kind labeled ‘roasted’ or ‘toasted,’ and toss with roasted vegetables or drizzle over grilled seafood.”
- Corn oil has a lower smoke point than the others but is high in omega-6 fatty acids. Corn oil is best for light sautéing and low-heat baking.
Most people get too many omega-6 fatty acids compared to omega-3 fatty acids — the ideal ratio is about two to four times less omega-6 than omega-3. A typical diet includes 14 to 25 times more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3 fatty acids. If you elect to use oils containing omega-6 fatty acids, try to balance it out by eating plenty of seafood, which contains omega-3 fatty acids.
Specialty Cooking Oils: Flaxseed, Sunflower, and Avocado
Here are a few of the many other oils you might want to try when preparing your next meal:
- Flaxseed oil is a nutty-tasting oil rich with omega-3 fatty acids. Kooi doesn’t recommend it for cooking with heat but suggests drizzling it over a salad instead.
- Sunflower oil is a great specialty cooking oil for someone on a heart-healthy diet because it has a high smoke point. It is one of the few oils you can use for searing, browning, and deep-frying.
- Avocado oil is a light-tasting oil that comes from the flesh, not the seed, of pressed avocados and is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. Like sunflower oil, it is ideal for sautéing, stir-frying, and grilling, according to Kooi, because of its high smoke point. “It’s also delicious over roasted vegetables and can jazz up a salad,” she says.
Bauer also suggests pumpkin seed oil, a great choice for the holiday season, and sesame oil, which adds an Asian flavor to cooking. “Oils from nuts like walnut oil add a bold nutty flavor to cooking,” says Bauer.
Final Thoughts on a Heart-Healthy Diet and Cooking Oils
Using vegetable cooking oil works to avoid high cholesterol only when cooking heart-healthy food. Sautéing hamburgers in sunflower oil won’t do much to lower your levels. A heart-healthy diet means less red meat and more fish, poultry, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Bauer’s takeaway? “Less is more when it comes to cooking oils.” They are dense in calories — about 120 calories per tablespoon. She suggests using an oil mister when cooking, so you can drizzle on the flavor without using too much.