For a long time, there was a belief that healthy eating meant avoiding fats at all costs. As a result, a bevy of low-fat and non-fat products sprang up, promising to help dieters eat better, without sacrificing their favorite foods.
One area where fat became a giant no-no was in cooking. For many people, non-fat cooking sprays and margarine became a norm, replacing butter, cooking oils, and other fats traditionally used for sautéing, roasting, or grilling meats and vegetables. In other cases, “low-fat” salad dressings or sauces took the place of finishing oils and vinaigrettes.
Today, we know that fats, when used in moderation, are nothing to fear. In fact, in a lot of ways, there might actually be some healthful advantages to cooking with certain fats and oils—if you use them the right way.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy Fats
Some people read the word “fat” and immediately panic. More often than not, though, these people are painting with a broad brush, lumping in all fats together when there are different types out there.
While some are certainly unhealthy, other varieties of fats are actually remarkably good for you—even essential! In fact, humans actually need a certain amount of fat in their diet to help provide energy and keep many of our bodily systems functioning at full capacity.
As Carolyn Brown, R.D., explained to Men’s Health, fat is “vital for everything from your brain to hunger hormones to weight loss. Plus, it makes your food taste great.”
One way to break down the difference between good and bad fats is to understand the distinction between saturated and unsaturated fats.
Saturated fats are normally solid at room temperature, and, in the American diet, tend to come from sources such as meat, cheese, butter, and hydrogenated oils (which also often include super-unhealthy trans fats).
The American Heart Association (AHA) suggests limiting your intake of saturated fats to just five or six percent of your total daily calories, since these fats are known to raise your levels of bad cholesterol, and increase your risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
Unsaturated fats, on the other hand, are generally liquid at room temperature, and tend to come predominately from plant sources, including nuts and seeds. Olive oil, peanut oil, sunflower oil, soybean oil, and other types of vegetable oils commonly used in cooking are typically high in unsaturated fats.
The unsaturated fats category can be broken down further: unsaturated fats are either monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, or a combination of the two. Both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are generally considered heart healthy; monounsaturated fats tend to have the greatest effect on lowering “bad” cholesterol levels, and have also been shown to help raise “good” cholesterol levels and reduce inflammation.
How to Cook Healthfully with Fats
So, to cook healthfully without sacrificing flavor, opt for unsaturated fats while limiting your intake of saturated fats.
To help make that healthy meal taste even better, consider this—many types of oils containing unsaturated fats also offer a ton of other significant health benefits!
- Olive oil contains a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, which has been shown to reduce inflammation, lower the risk of heart disease and stroke, and even offer cancer-fighting properties
- Avocado oil is rich in healthy unsaturated fats, and comes from a fruit high in protein and potassium
- Grapeseed oil is high in polyunsaturated fats, offers a ton of vitamin E, and doesn’t have a distinctive flavor—which, as Bon Appétit points out, makes it a perfect vehicle for letting other delicious ingredients take center stage
- Sesame oil not only contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, but also antioxidants, which can help your body fight against free radicals, as well as zinc, which helps with skin and bone health
- Walnut oil goes great in sauces and on salads, and it also comes with a heaping dose of heart-healthy polyunsaturated fats and bone-strengthening vitamin K
- Sunflower oil is known to contain a healthful balance of fats; it’s also rich in vitamin E, which can help improve the function of your immune system
To see some of the benefits of all of these fats, Brown tells Men’s Health to switch it up, and always “match the oil with the type of food you’re cooking with.”
In other words, she says, “If you’re making Italian, go with olive oil. If you’re going Asian, try coconut oil. The same goes with avocado, sunflower, and sesame oils.”
With that in mind, experts still recommend that you avoid going overboard with fats. Brown suggests that cooks should limit their use of fat to one tablespoon (or “one glug from the bottle”) per meal.
And now, the Enrollment Specialists would like to know: What’s your favorite healthy oil to cook with? How do you get creative about adding nutritious fats into your diet? Let us know over on Facebook, where we keep up the conversation all things health and wellness.