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Good & Bad Cooking Oils

By Nina K.

Plant-based cooking oils are healthier for your heart than butter or lard. Because oils are pure fat -- and, therefore, high in calories -- it's wise to use them in moderation. Fat contains more than double the calories of protein or carbohydrates, so foods cooked in excess oil -- or even salads dripping with oily dressing -- can easily lead to weight gain. For optimal nutrition, 20 percent to 25 percent of your total calories should come from fat each day.

Healthy Fats

Most oils contain a blend of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Unlike saturated fats from animal products, which are linked to high cholesterol levels and cardiovascular disease, unsaturated fats may help protect your heart. Polyunsaturated fats, in particular, may help reduce levels of low-density lipoprotein, the "bad" cholesterol, as well as triglycerides while increasing high-density lipoprotein, the "good" cholesterol. This will help to reduce plaque buildup on your artery walls. Corn, safflower and soybean oils are especially high in polyunsaturated fats, while olive, peanut, sunflower and sesame oils are especially rich in monounsaturated fats.

Tropical Oil Debate

Tropical oils, such as palm and coconut, are high in saturated fat, but the effects on health remain unclear, according to New York University Langone Medical Center. As the institute reports, oxidized palm oil -- the type used most often for cooking -- may raise cholesterol levels in people who already suffer from high cholesterol, but fresh palm oil may reduce cholesterol instead. In addition, coconut oil could increase cholesterol in those with high cholesterol levels, but other studies show that coconut oil has no such effect and may even help reduce belly fat.

Polyphenol Power

Research suggests that virgin and extra-virgin olive oils, which are made by pressing the fruits without any chemical processing, may be particularly healthy. These oils contain antioxidants called polyphenols, which may help prevent cardiovascular disease. In a study published in "Annals of Internal Medicine" in 2006, researchers found that virgin olive oil increased HDL cholesterol levels in men more than refined olive oil did. The virgin oil also helped prevent oxidation of LDL cholesterol, possibly reducing any harmful effects.

Cooking Considerations

Oils come with varying smoke points, meaning some burn at lower temperatures than others. Those with higher smoke points, such as grapeseed, peanut and corn oils, are well suited for frying. Those with lower smoke points, such as extra-virgin olive oil, are best for lighter sauteing or drizzling on prepared dishes such as pasta or garlic bread. Most oils also work well in salad dressings, although coconut oil -- which is solid at room temperature -- doesn't have an ideal texture for this purpose.

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