Some people may be cautious when it comes to using oils in cooking or with their food. Eating fat with meals conjures thoughts of high cholesterol and, well, getting fat. The fact that some fats are labeled as “bad” adds to the confusion and misconception that all fats are unhealthy.
But that isn’t the case.
“It’s important to consume oils,” says Shilpa Bhupathiraju, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Oils and fats contain essential fatty acids — omega 3s and 6s, in particular — that are part of the structure of every single cell in the body, says Walter Willett, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They’re the building blocks of hormones, help decrease inflammation, and lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure. Oil also provides taste and satiety.
The key is knowing the right kind to use. It’s easier when you’re cooking at home, a little trickier when you’re eating out and you can’t control every step in the process. But it’s not just about picking the healthiest oils. They play a part in a healthy diet when they’re part of an eating plan that minimizes processed foods, simple carbohydrates, and sugar.
Healthy and not-so-healthy oils
In general, Willett says that the healthiest oils are liquid and plant-based. The one that comes to mind first is olive oil, and for good reason. “It’s stood the test of time,” he says. It helps lower blood cholesterol and provides antioxidants, and extra virgin is the ideal version, as it’s the first pressing and least refined.
After that, corn, canola, sunflower, safflower, and soybean all fall into the healthy column. The last one wasn’t always considered a healthy choice because it used to be hydrogenated, but now it’s in a natural state and a good source, says Willett.
On the unhealthy side, there’s lard, butter, palm oil, and coconut oil. The commonality is that they come in a semi-solid state and have a high level of saturated fat. The consumption of that fat increases LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), and has been associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Willett says part of the challenge is cultural. Northern European tradition is based on eating animals and animal fats, and those fats, like butter and lard, come in solid form. The Southern European approach, like the Mediterranean diet, is based on plant-based oils, particularly olive.