Cooking Oils for High Cholesterol

Olive oil can help lower cholesterol.
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When preparing your favorite cholesterol-lowering foods, you might not think much of cooking oils, but they can make as much of a difference as what you're cooking.

Cooking for yourself, as opposed to eating commercially prepared foods, is one of the best ways to control the amount of cholesterol and fat in your diet, say researchers.

"The biggest source [of dietary cholesterol and fat] is people buying foods and not cooking," says Anne Nedrow, MD, associate professor of medicine at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. "Most Americans just need to eat less saturated fat."

But even for experienced cooks, the various sources of cholesterol and fat — as well as the different types of fats — can be bewildering. And the health claims on labels of cooking oils and other food products do little to lessen the confusion.

The Oils and Fats That Raise Cholesterol

The four major types of fats that are found in food products are saturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and trans-fatty acids, often referred to as "trans fats."

  • Saturated fats are usually solid at room temperature (think a stick of butter). Saturated fat is found in tropical oils (palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil), cocoa butter, lard, beef fat, butterfat, chicken fat, and Pacific salmon fat.
  • Trans fats are manufactured fats resulting from adding hydrogen to vegetable oils; they are used in commercially prepared foods to preserve the flavor and increase the shelf life of these foods. You can find them on food labels by looking for the words "partially hydrogenated oils." They are used in place of other saturated fats because they're cheaper.

Saturated and trans fats are the primary sources of dietary cholesterol — both of these fats have been linked to diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and other conditions. Trans fat is even worse since it raises levels of "bad" LDL cholesterol and lowers levels of "good" HDL cholesterol.

Dr. Nedrow estimates that saturated fats constitute about 11 to 12% of the calories in a typical American's diet. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends this figure should be less than 7%. The USDA recommends limiting saturated fat to 10% of the total diet, by replacing saturated fat (like butter) with unsaturated fat (like olive oil).

Many processed foods have high levels of saturated and trans fats. Crackers, cookies and commercially prepared baked goods, such as bread, pies, and cakes are often loaded with high levels of these fats.

The Oils and Fats That Lower Cholesterol

On the flip side, unsaturated fats, such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, can help to lower cholesterol levels, especially when used in place of saturated fats. These oils, such as corn and olive oils, are usually liquid at room temperature.

  • Unsaturated fats are found in foods, such as nuts, seeds, olives, and avocados. Cooking oils made from these sources are the healthiest to cook with for your heart. Make an olive oil-based salad dressing, and use peanut or canola oil to sauté meat, chicken, and vegetables.

Margarine and similar food spreads can vary significantly in the amounts and types of fats they contain — and aren't necessarily healthier than butter. The AHA recommends using margarine that lists liquid vegetable oil as the first ingredient on the label, and that contain not more than two grams of saturated fat per tablespoon.

Be aware, though, that using any cooking oils too generously — even healthier oils and ingredients — can add lots of extra calories, resulting in weight gain. All fats typically contain more than double the calories of either carbohydrates or protein.

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