One of the first guidelines often provided to heart patients is to reduce their consumption of saturated fats. When adopting a new way of eating that encompasses both diabetes and heart disease, what are the best oils for heart health? Is there even such a thing as healthy cooking with oils?
In this 3-part series, we will look at (1) what research suggests about the impact of healthy oils on heart disease, (2) factors to consider in choosing healthy oils, and (3) how to compare the characteristics of healthy oils and use the oil that meets your needs.
Even though they are not a food group, oils are an important source of nutrition. They contain essential fatty acids that are necessary for nerve and brain function, and they nourish our skin, hair and nails. The body cannot produce essential fatty acids, so it depends on diet for them.
Reducing use of saturated fats
There are many modifiable risk factors for heart disease, some of which include high blood pressure, weight and smoking. Among these are elevated LDL-C (low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, or “bad cholesterol”), which is widely accepted as a cause of heart disease. While not all saturated fats are created equal, most research suggests that reducing saturated fat consumption can reduce the risk of heart disease, but the foods you replace it with could be critical.
Saturated fats are those found primarily in meats and animal products. They are also found in palm and coconut oils. Some research suggests that saturated fats from dairy sources are less harmful than those from meats, but experts suggest that saturated fats should constitute no more than half of daily fat intake.
Generally, replacing saturated fats with monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats and whole grain carbs may lower heart disease risk, but replacing them with refined carbs might not make a difference at all.
Among the healthy fat options, the replacement of saturated fat with polyunsaturated fats (see below) may have the greatest impact, but monounsaturated fats may be helpful to a lesser degree.
Polyunsaturated and Monounsaturated fats
All oils contain different types of fat, so even the healthiest plant-based oils contain at least some saturated fat. However, the levels are much lower in most plant-based oils, and there is research from multiple sources suggesting that if saturated fats are replaced with unsaturated fats (and whole grain carbs) the effect is a reduction of heart disease risk. The reduced risk is more pronounced with polyunsaturated fats.
Polyunsaturated fats (PUFAs) are found in nuts and seed oils like walnut oil and flaxseed oil as well as some vegetable oils, like corn, soybean and sunflower oil. Certain fish, like salmon, mackerel, herring, albacore turn and trout also contain polyunsaturated fats.
Monounsaturated fats (MUFAs) are found in olive oil and avocado oil as well as in other nuts and seeds (and their oils), like peanut oil, sesame seed oil and almond oil.
A discussion of healthy oils is not complete without considering whether the oils are derived through solvent extraction (chemical processing), or pressed, and whether they are refined or unrefined. In part two of this series, we will look at the processing of oils and how it affects their use and storage.
Oils are not “health food,” but they are a small, essential part of a healthy food lifestyle. In addition, they help beat hunger and make meals satisfying. There is significant research suggesting that obtaining the essential fatty acids oils provide from plant based sources is preferable to relying on animal-based sources.