Despite what you may have heard, fat isn’t a dirty word. Among its functions are aiding cell growth, protecting your organs, and playing a role in nutrient absorption, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). “Our bodies need fats in order to absorb certain fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamins A, D, E, and K, along with beta-carotene,” says Christine Palumbo, RDN, who is based in Chicago.
“Fat also contributes to satiety, or a sense of fullness, after a meal,” Palumbo says. According to the Mayo Clinic, the body processes fats, along with proteins, more slowly than carbohydrates, and this can help you feel fuller and support a healthy weight.
If you like cooking with oils in particular, that’s a smart move. “Fat is an essential nutrient, and liquid fats like oils are an excellent source,” says Jessica Levinson, RDN, a culinary nutrition expert in New Rochelle, New York.
If you’re taking in 2,000 calories per day, the daily goal for women is 5 to 6 teaspoons, while the daily goal for men is 6 to 7 teaspoons, according to the University of Maine.
Just be sure you’re choosing the right oil. The AHA recommends swapping those with saturated fat for those high in healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fat, which can help reduce the risk for heart disease.
For a cheat sheet on which oils to choose, limit, and avoid, check out the list below.
The 8 Best Oils for Your Health
1. Olive Oil
Olive oil is a basic ingredient of the famously heart-healthy Mediterranean diet, and it is perfect for drizzling on salads, pasta, and bread. “Olive oil, and especially extra-virgin olive oil, is my favorite oil and the one I primarily use,” says Palumbo. For extra-virgin olive oil, the oil has been extracted without using high heat or certain chemicals, maintaining the oil’s naturally occurring chemicals called phenols, according to Harvard Health Publishing. “[Extra-virgin olive oil] contains more than 30 different phenolic compounds, a group of phytochemicals that includes many with anti-inflammatory and blood-vessel-expanding actions,” Palumbo explains, and research notes.
One particular phytochemical gets lots of attention for its potential protective effect against Alzheimer’s, research suggests. “Certain types of extra-virgin olive oil contain a natural anti-inflammatory compound called oleocanthal,” says Palumbo. “If it’s present in the olive oil, you can taste it as a peppery finish in the back of your throat.”
Olive oil also shines for its heart-health benefits. “Extra-virgin olive oil contains higher amounts of healthful monounsaturated fats compared with other oils,” Palumbo says. According to MedlinePlus, monounsaturated fat can help lower your LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels when you replace saturated fats with them. Research found that a Mediterranean diet enriched with 4 tablespoons (tbsp) of virgin olive oil per day helped improve HDL (“good”) cholesterol. And another study found that consuming more than ½ tbsp of olive oil per day was linked to a lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease, in addition to other diseases like cancer and respiratory disease.
You can use olive oil when preparing sautéed dishes and baked goods, but it has a relatively low smoke point, which is the temperature at which the oil begins to break down and starts to smoke, so it’s not good for deep-frying, says New York City–based Beth Warren, RD, author of Living a Real Life With Real Food. Last, don’t believe the common myth that heating olive oil completely ruins its polyphenol content, one study points out. While cooking may degrade some of the polyphenols in olive oil, enough of them remain to confer their health benefits.
2. Canola Oil
Canola oil has only 1 gram (g) of saturated fat in 1 tbsp and, like olive oil, is high in monounsaturated fat (with about 9 g per tbsp). It also contains high levels of polyunsaturated fat (4 g per tbsp), according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Still, some individuals have questioned the healthiness of canola oil. According to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, one concern centers around the solvent hexane, which is used to extract oil from rapeseed to make canola oil, and some people fear it may be toxic. However, only trace amounts are in the final oil. Another concern is the trans fat in canola oil — though Harvard says that the low amount of trans fat is no different from many other vegetable oils on the market.
Canola oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil and a neutral flavor, so it is better than olive oil for higher heat cooking, such as roasting and frying, says Levinson. Because it doesn’t have as much flavor as some other vegetable and seed oils, Warren advises against it for salad dressings and other dishes in which you want the oil to add some flavor.
3. Flaxseed Oil
“Flaxseed oil is an excellent source of alpha-linolenic acid, an omega-3 fatty acid,” explains Palumbo. Fish such as salmon, mackerel, and sardines provide the other forms of omega-3s (eicosapentaenoic acid and docosahexaenoic acid), per Mount Sinai.
In addition to their benefits for your ticker, omega-3s, a type of polyunsaturated fat that your body cannot produce on its own, may reduce inflammation, thus lowering your risk for certain types of cancer, according to MD Anderson Cancer Center. Flaxseed oil in particular may help reduce symptoms of arthritis, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
Another perk? Flaxseed oil contains omega-6 fatty acids, which are also important for your health, per Mount Sinai. One study found that higher levels of linolenic acid (the most common omega-6 fatty acid) were linked to lower odds of heart disease, stroke, and early death.
While you may have heard omega-6s aren’t healthy, per Harvard Health Publishing, that isn’t true; be sure to balance your intake of omega-3s and omega-6s.
Don’t heat this oil, as doing so can disrupt the fatty acid content, according to research. Instead, use it in cold dishes like smoothies and salads, Warren says. “It is fantastic drizzled over greens or whole grains, or as a marinade,” Palumbo suggests.
4. Avocado Oil
If you love avocados, why not give avocado oil a try? “Avocados and avocado oil are rich in healthy monounsaturated fats,” says Levinson.
One review found that avocado oil has excellent nutritional value at low and high temperatures. “Avocado oil has a higher smoke point than olive oil, so it is better for higher-heat cooking,” says Levinson. It can be used for stir-frying, sautéing, or searing, says Sara Haas, RD, a consultant culinary nutritionist based in Chicago. Meanwhile, Levinson advises that avocado oil’s neutral flavor makes it a good option for use in baking.
5. Walnut Oil
“Walnut oil is a healthy choice and a good source of omega-3 fatty acids, primarily alpha-linolenic acid,” says Levinson. Research even shows that a diet that includes walnut oil (and actual walnuts) may have heart-protective effects and help the body better deal with stress.
Another study found that people who had high levels of omega-3s in their red blood cells experienced better cognitive function in midlife.
“Walnut oil is unrefined and has a very low smoke point, so it should not be used for cooking. It has a rich, nutty flavor and is best for salad dressings and as a flavor booster to finish a dish,” says Levinson. “Just be sure to keep it refrigerated,” says Levinson. Walnut oil is ideal for desserts and other recipes that benefit from a nutty flavor, adds Warren.
6. Sesame Oil
A staple in Asian and Indian cooking, sesame oil makes the AHA’s list of heart-healthy cooking oils.
“Sesame oil is another polyunsaturated fat,” says Levinson. One review notes that sesame oil has known anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, potentially helping lower the odds of cardiovascular disease and atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fat and other substances in the artery walls that causes these vessels to narrow and raises blood pressure.
“It has a high smoke point, which makes it good for high-heat cooking like stir-frying, but it does have a strong flavor,” says Levinson, adding that "a little goes a long way, and it can be overpowering.” She likes cooking with sesame oil for Asian-style dishes but primarily uses it in sauces and marinades. Palumbo is also a fan, noting that she keeps “a small bottle of toasted sesame oil in my fridge — it imparts a sweet, nutty flavor to stir-fries and marinades.”
7. Grapeseed Oil
Grapeseed oil is low in saturated fat and has a high smoke point, which makes it a healthy choice for all kinds of cooking and grilling, says Warren. Its nutty but mild flavor works well in salad dressings or drizzled over roasted veggies.
Like flaxseed oil, grapeseed oil contains omega-6 polyunsaturated fatty acids, Harvard notes. Grapeseed oil also contains vitamin E, which acts like an antioxidant to help fight free radicals and is a key vitamin for immune system support, according to the National Institutes of Health. According to the USDA, 1 tbsp of grapeseed oil is an excellent source of vitamin E.
8. Sunflower Oil
Another AHA-approved cooking oil, sunflower oil is high in unsaturated fats and low in saturated fat. Research shows that opting for sunflower oil rather than an oil high in saturated fat could lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
Like grapeseed oil, 1 tbsp of sunflower oil is an excellent source of vitamin E, according to the USDA.
3 Oils to Limit or Avoid
1. Coconut Oil
This oil is controversial. According to an article, coconut oil, which is solid at room temperature, is composed of roughly 90 percent saturated fat — but some believe that not all saturated fats are equivalent. “This isn’t the same as the saturated fat found in red meat that clogs your arteries,” says Warren. Coconut oil has a high amount of medium-chain fatty acids, which are harder for the body to convert into stored fat, she adds. Another perk: A separate study found that the oil significantly increased HDL cholesterol levels, although not all studies have come to this same conclusion.
That said, coconut oil may also raise your LDL cholesterol levels, according to another study, and that isn’t good news for your ticker. If you want to use coconut oil for cooking or baking, the Cleveland Clinic recommends doing so in moderation, within the recommended limits for saturated fat intake, and as part of a wider healthy diet.
2. Partially Hydrogenated Oils
The primary source of unhealthy trans fats in a person’s diet is partially hydrogenated oil, which can be found in processed foods, according to the AHA. These artificial trans fats are created through an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid.
The FDA ruled that these fats are so bad for health that manufacturers had to remove all trans fats from their products by January 2020. You should remove partially hydrogenated oils from your diet, too, Warren says. Still, in the United States, if you buy a food that has less than 0.5 g of trans fat, a company can label it 0 g of trans fat, according to the Mayo Clinic, and those small amounts of trans fat can quickly add up if you’re not careful. To see if there's trans fat in a product, check for the words “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” on the ingredient list.
“People should avoid partially hydrogenated oils containing trans fatty acids,” advises Palumbo. “[They] help maintain a product's shelf life, but they are detrimental to human health.”
For example, one study found that trans fats may actually assist in cell death, which could potentially explain why trans fats have been linked to cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers note.
3. Palm Oil
Palm oil is composed of roughly equal parts saturated fat and unsaturated fat, research has found. According to Harvard Health Publishing, because it’s semisolid at room temperature, it’s often used in processed foods in place of partially hydrogenated oils — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, considering it contains less saturated fat than butter and contains no trans fats.
Still, palm oil shouldn’t be your go-to for cooking, especially when you can easily opt to use oils with lower levels of saturated fat. People with diabetes should pay close attention to their saturated fat consumption (since they are at a higher risk for heart disease) and avoid sources of the fat like palm oil, according to the American Diabetes Association.
In addition, there are ethical concerns over the use of palm oil, according to the World Wildlife Fund, as palm oil production has been linked with deforestation and unjust working practices. There’s also concern about coconut oil’s environmental impacts, per one study.