There are plenty of ways to fill your diet with hearty-healthy fats — avocados, olives, and nuts are all great options.
Another fatty favorite that should top your list? Cooking oil. While you’ve probably been conditioned to fear the stuff, lots of oils contain beneficial nutrients that can help keep you full, keep your energy levels going, and even protect your heart, according to the American Heart Association.
The caveat: you have to choose the right kind and keep your portions in check.
“I always recommend to be careful about overusing fat when they’re cooking,” says certified personal trainer Alix Turoff, M.S., R.D., C.D.N. “I advise them to keep their oil in a spray bottle and use a non-stick pan so they don’t need to go heavy,” she says. That’s because oil is pretty high in calories. In fact, one tablespoon of olive oil serves roughly 120 calories, which can add up quickly if you’re not eyeing your measurements.
Think of oil as the “garnish” to your meals, says Amy Goodson, R.D., a nutrition consultant in Dallas, Texas. Healthy fats should complement your plate full of quality carbohydrates, like whole grains, and lean protein, like chicken and fish.
Adding a tablespoon of oil to your soup, stir-fry, or salad dressing is an easy way to sneak some in without going overboard. Here are four expert-approved oils you should reach for—and how your body will reap the benefits.
Your favorite toast topper comes in liquid form. According to a study published in The Journal of Nutrition, adding avocado oil to your salsa can help you absorb the antioxidants found in the tomatoes, like lycopene and beta-carotene, more efficiently. The researchers saw a similar bump in nutrient absorption when they added avocado oil to a salad, too.
That’s because carotenoids are fat soluble, meaning your body actually needs the help of fat (from the avocados) to fully absorb them. Fat-soluble vitamins — including A, D, E and K — also require fat to be digested, says Turoff.
On top of that, avocado oil has a particularly high smoke point (over 260 degrees C), making it a great option when cooking at high temperatures, says Kara Landau, R.D., founder of Uplift Food, NYC. Drizzle a serving of avocado oil onto your vegetables before roasting or your pan before cooking an omelet or stir-fry, she says.
Most of the time, you hear about the omega-3 fatty acids found in seafood, like salmon and tuna. This includes eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA).
Cold-pressed flaxseed oil, however, is rich in alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), a plant-based omega-3 fatty acid your body can’t make. Both plant- and fish-based omega-3s are associated with nearly a 10 percent lower risk of fatal heart attacks, according to a meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine. Omega-3s in general are great for your brain health, too.
Because it burns easily, “flaxseed oil should be consumed more at room temperature, so in salad dressings, blended into smoothies, or even to brush atop cooked food like chicken, veggies, or bruschetta,” says Goodson.
Adding canola oil to your meals may help you lose belly fat, according to a study from Penn State University. After 100 people drank two fruit smoothies spiked with canola for a month, they lost about a quarter of a pound of fat around their midsection, potentially due to canola’s high amount of monounsaturated fats, the researchers note. (Just note they measured it out so they didn’t go overboard with their daily calories.)
Plus, it’s good for your heart. The omega-3s found in canola oil may work to reduce inflammation and lower your triglycerides (a type of fat in your blood), says Goodson.
“There is some evidence that omega-3 fatty acids can also be protective against some types of cancers,” she adds. In fact, one animal study published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer found that canola oil may actually inhibit the growth of colon cancer tumors, but more research needs to be done understand its full potential in humans.
Still, canola oil is one of the most versatile cooking oils out there, since it has a high smoke point of 200 degrees C. Use canola as a grilling, baking, or sautéing option if you are looking for a lighter flavor profile.
EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL
Olive oil is a universal favorite for a reason. It’s a staple of the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, which research shows may benefit your brain, eye, kidney, and penis health, too.
The monounsaturated fats in olive oil have also been shown to reduce your LDL cholesterol, also known as your “bad cholesterol,” says Suzanne Fisher, R.D., which can improve your risk of heart disease.
Plus, one animal study suggests that a diet rich in olive oil may protect your brain from symptoms associated with Alzheimer’s disease as you age.
Go for extra virgin. It’s a higher quality variety that tastes better. The smoke point is pretty low, though, so it tends to burn easily, says Goodson. This can damage the good-for-you fat in the oil and mess with the flavor, she explains. Stick to low or medium heat (up to 320 degrees). Add it to your spaghetti as a sub for your go-to red sauce.
By Aly Walansky