Oils and Spreads: How to Make Heart-Healthy Choices

It is not just how much fat you eat that’s important, but also which kind. While you shouldn’t eat any fat in abundance, some rank nutritionally higher than others.

Think of it as a name game. Oils, spreads, and other foods high in saturated fats, including cheese and butter, increase the levels of “bad” cholesterol in your blood, which can lead to heart disease. So can trans fatty acids, or trans fats. The FDA has banned these fats from being added to processed foods, such as margarine and commercially-prepared baked goods—however food manufacturers still have some time before they must comply with this ruling. And keep in mind, they do still occur naturally in some meat and dairy products.

In contrast, fats that have the word unsaturated in their name can help lower cholesterol when used in place of saturated and trans fats. These include spreads and oils, such as olive oil, that contain polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats.

For adults, fats should provide between 20 and 35 percent of total daily calories. Of this, saturated fats should provide less than 10 percent of daily calories—that’s about 20 grams for a 2,000 calorie diet.

Choosing Cooking Oils

Nontropical vegetable oils are the best to use when cooking and preparing food—and there are a lot to choose from. Healthy oils include:

  • Canola

  • Olive

  • Corn

  • Sunflower

  • Safflower

  • Soybean

  • Peanut

  • Blends of these oils, often sold as “vegetable oil”

When shopping for oil, check the Nutrition Facts label: Choose those with less than 4 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. Make sure they’re free of trans fats and contain no partially hydrogenated oils.

Some specialty oils, like sesame, avocado, and grapeseed, are also healthy choices but may be difficult to find and often cost more.

Avoid tropical oils, including coconut oil—they’re high in saturated fat. 

Butter vs. Margarine

If you’re choosing between butter and margarine, soft margarine is the best option. Products vary, so check the Nutrition Facts label and choose brands with fewer calories, less saturated fat, and no trans fat.

However, the best choice is still nontropical vegetable oils. They’re healthier than solid fats and can usually be used just like them.

More Fat Tips

Here are some heart-healthy tips when using oils and spreads:

  • Opt for oils to grill, sauté, and roast foods. 

  • Grease pans and baking dishes with oils and sprays made from oils.

  • Make salad dressings and sauces with your favorite unsaturated oils.

  • Use oils to replace butter, margarine, and other solid fats in recipes.  

  • Try different types of healthy oils—you may like some more than others. And because some oils are better suited for certain types of cooking, it’s a good idea to have more than one kind in your kitchen.


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