Oil is fat. So people might think fats make us fat. It’s not that simple.

Certainly, oil is fat; but not all fats are created equal. Not all fats are dangerous and eating fat won’t make you fatter than eating any other type of nutrients in excess.

A tablespoon of oil has around 120 calories no matter what type of oil you drip into your salad. However, the type of oil you cook with will make a difference in your health.

“Olive oil and canola oil are the healthy superstars, but there are other taste-worthy contenders,” says Sheah Rarback, registered dietitian on the faculty of the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine.

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Fats not only provide flavor to your meals but also are essential for many important processes of the body. Benefits include flawless skin and hair, maintenance of the structure and function of cells, and providing absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) to aid in the production of hormones like estrogen and testosterone.

“Sixty percent of the dry weight of the brain is fat, and healthy neurons contain a type of fat known as DHA,” says Susan B. Dopart, MS, RD, C.D.E, author of the book A Recipe for Life.

The top contenders

Rarbak explains that the healthiest oils are those highest in mono-saturated fats, lowest in saturated fat and ones that contain omega-3 fatty acids that are converted into EPA and DHA.  Evidence keeps growing that a high intake of EPA and DHA reduces the risk of inflammation, coronary disease and improves memory, but other sources can add great health benefits as well.

“Monosaturated fats such as canola, peanut, avocado and olive oils help lower total cholesterol levels and may help increase good cholesterol HDL making them cardio protective,” adds Ximena Jimenez MS, RD, LD, national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Other oils like flaxseed, safflower, walnut, corn and sunflower (mainly vegetable oils) have polyunsaturated fats. “They can help lower your total cholesterol but have no effect on your good one,” points out Jimenez.

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Peanut oil has an extra bonus, says Rarbak, because it contains resveratrol, the phytonutrient in grapes and red wine that is associated with a reduced risk of heart and liver disease. Walnut oil is high in vitamin E and has been shown to reduce blood triglyceride. Avocado oil is higher in monounsaturated fatty acids and contains cholesterol-lowering beta-sitosterol, explains Rarbak.

Lowering cholesterol with oil, really?

Increasing plant sterols intake (2g per day) has been suggested to aid reduce total and bad LDL cholesterol levels. Corn oil has 135 mg of plant sterols in one tablespoon, while peanuts and garbanzo beans may provide 63 mg and 10 mg for one ounce, respectively.

In general, any plant-based food is healthy and the saturated fats in plants have a different molecular make up than the saturated fats from animal products.

“The plant-based saturated fats, like lauric acid in coconut oil, and marine animal based saturated fats are metabolized differently by our body. The stearic acid, a short chain fatty acid in beef, and lauric acids are healthy fats. The mono saturated fats like olive oil, which is oleic acid, is the healthiest fat,” says Larry Santora, MD, FACC, Medical Director, Heart and Vascular Wellness Center Saint Joseph Hospital, California.

Experts say that even when you select the healthiest oil type, always keep in mind that oils are high in calories so you want to use them in moderation. Limit serving size for optimum nutrition and health to 2-3 Tbsp per day, advises Jimenez.

According to a research from Food Science, healthy oils begin to lose their antioxidant potency after about six months of storage.

Oil’s cooking class

Herb Mesa, “The Next Food Network Star” finalist, celebrity chef and personal trainer dishes all about on how to use the different healthy oils.

Olive oil is great for dipping oil (with bread) or in dressings. Heating olive oil causes it to lose a lot of its natural flavor.

Sesame oil is a good choice for Asian dishes such as stir-fry. It has a distinct taste so use small amount. Its unique flavor can add great flavor to a dish but it’s not for everyone.

Flaxseed oil can be fun to experiment with for dressings. It doesn’t withstand heat very well, so using it for dressings and no-heat sauces is ideal. Its distinctive taste doesn’t work well with every dish but it does have health benefits, including its high level of omega-3s.

Corn oil makes it great all-purpose oil for general cooking and baking. Corn oil, like Mazola Corn Oil, contains the most naturally occurring cholesterol-blocking plant sterols of any cooking oils. It is also one of the most stable oils for frying, and it produces very little odor when cooking.

Canola oil is useful cooking oil due to its light flavor and smooth texture. Canola is a good option that does not have much of an effect on the taste of your food, and is good for light cooking, sauces and desserts.

Walnut oil has a distinct, nutty scent and flavor. Use it on occasion in dressings or as a dessert oil. Its distinctive flavor can be good and bad, depending whether you like the taste.

Peanut oil is an obvious good choice for any Asian cooking (Thai, Chinese, etc.). Also, less obvious, it has a high smoke-point and can be used for frying as well. Peanut oil also has no cholesterol.

Sunflower oil blends well with others such as canola and soybean oil. It also has a long shelf life

Coconut oil is great for baking. It brings out the sweetness in most foods and is a good option for sautéing sweet vegetables.

Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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Marta Montenegro is an exercise physiologist, certified strength and conditioning coach and master trainer, who teaches as an adjunct professor at Florida International University. Marta has developed her own system of exercises used by professional athletes. Her personal website, martamontenegro.com, combines fitness, nutrition and health tips, exercise routines, recipes and the latest news to help you change your life but not your lifestyle. She was the founder of nationally awarded SOBeFiT magazine and the fitness DVD series Montenegro Method.

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