Picture this: You’re wandering the aisles of Trader Joe’s, picking out your favorite go-to items. Suddenly, you find yourself in the oil aisle, and the overwhelm immediately sets in because there are just so many options to choose from: Olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, the list goes on and on. How do you know which cooking oils are best for your overall health and heart?
If you follow the keto or Mediterranean diets, you likely know that healthy fats are an important part of a well-rounded, heart-healthy diet. But consuming the right kinds of fats sometimes requires a careful eye. When it comes to cooking oils, these fall under two umbrella categories: Saturated fats and unsaturated fats. There are variations and subgroups for each, which we’ll explore below in our guide to the best and worst cooking oils for heart health.
The best cooking oils for heart health
Broadly speaking, unsaturated fats tend to be better for heart health than saturated fat. Those are further broken down into monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats are found in high concentrations in olives, avocados, and nuts, while foods like walnuts, flax seeds, and fish are stocked up with polyunsaturated fats.
Oleic acid is amongst the most prominent and popular components found in monounsaturated fats. As the FDA put it after a study in 2018, oleic acid “may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” It can be found in a wide range of cooking oils and is prominent in olive oil, which Bansari Acharya, a registered dietician and nutritionist who runs FoodLove.com, calls the best cooking oil for heart health. Safflower oil also has a high oleic acid count.
Acharya also recommends canola oil for heart health, but the canola oil conversation is a complex one. While it is indeed low in saturated fat, unless you’re able to find cold-pressed canola oil, a lot of damage is typically done to it during processing as molecules turn rancid and the omega-3s in it are destroyed, stripping away many of its health benefits.
Extra virgin olive oil is made of 73% oleic acid, so it makes up a clear majority of the oil, but that’s not the only important nutrient that it contains—polyphenols are also key.
“Olive oil is one of the healthiest oils to have with food, whether you cook with it or just have in a dressing or for dipping,” says Dr. William Li, the author of the bestseller Eat To Beat Disease: The New Science of How Your Body Can Heal Itself and the president of the Angiogenesis Foundation. “The polyphenols in olive oil are antioxidants that can boost your body’s health defenses by improving your circulation, helping your body’s stem cells, improving your gut health, and boosting immunity while reducing inflammation.”
Other cooking oils that have lots of monounsaturated fats include sesame oil and avocado oil. Avocado oil tends to be a great option for cooking because in addition to being generally good for heart health, it has one of the highest smoke points at 520°F.
You can also further break down polyunsaturated fats to find a variety of key components. Some of the most notable include omega-3 fatty acids and omega-6 fatty acids. The former are very plentiful in fish and walnuts and can help protect the heart from irregular rhythm, stop blood clots, and reduce the number of triglycerides in the bloodstream. Omega-6 fatty acids, meanwhile, are found largely in plant-based oils and are excellent for limiting LDL cholesterol (a leading contributor to clogged arteries) and manage blood sugar.
Related: How Much Avocado Is Too Much?
The worst cooking oils for heart health
On the flip side, there are some cooking oils that can help lead directly to a smorgasbord of very serious heart health problems. Simply put, if you aren’t looking to make frequent visits to the cardiologist, you’ll want to avoid cooking oils that are loaded up with saturated fats.
“Coconut oil and palm oil are the worst cooking oils for heart health as saturated fats make up the majority of the fats that are present in these oils,” Acharya explains. “Saturated fats can cause plaque to develop in the arteries and can lower HDL cholesterol in the blood, which has a protective effect on the heart. When you have increased plaque developing in the arteries and reduce something that has protective mechanisms, you increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease.”
There are other potential consequences of consuming oils with lots of saturated fat, as well. “Saturated fat intake is also associated with greater inflammatory markers in the body, as well as possibly cognitive decline,” Dr. Li says.
Related: Is Coconut Oil Healthy?
Still, while you should absolutely try to cook with oils filled with unsaturated fat, don’t feel as if you have to cut saturated fats entirely out of your life. “The research on saturated fats suggests that… [they] may not be as bad as once thought, so more research is needed,” Dr. Li adds.
We know what you’re thinking: Isn’t coconut oil supposed to be really good for you? While it’s had a bit of a health halo in recent years, if you look at the research, the jury’s still out on how often we should be eating coconut oil, or if we should be eating at all. One big review of 8 clinical trials and 13 observational studies concluded that coconut oil should probably not be viewed as a heart-healthy food. But if you like the taste, there’s no reason not to cook with it once in a while. As with most foods, the most important thing is moderation.
On the other hand, you should probably avoid partially hydrogenated oils. These oils contain trans fats, which come in both natural and artificial forms. You’ll find small deposits of natural trans fats in animal products like dairy and meat, but it’s the artificial trans fats that you really need to avoid. These fats form when food manufacturers inject hydrogen into a vegetable oil in order to make it last longer, though if you consume enough of them, they might have the opposite effect on your body.
The FDA banned trans fats in June of 2018, but companies can still sell products that were manufactured before that date, up through 2021. It’s important to keep that in mind when you’re considering purchasing ingredients like vegetable shortening, which used to be chock full of trans fats. To be honest, you probably don’t want to cook with vegetable shortening with or without trans fats, anyway.
Be sure to check out our roundup of heart healthy recipes.