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Oil in a Healthy Diet: Tips on Striking a Balance

Oil- is it good? Is it bad? How much is too much? Are some better than others? For those seeking to achieve health through diet, these are just a handful of the questions that oil poses. And concrete answers can be hard to find, as the role of oil in a healthy diet is something of an ongoing debate. Between a huge media focus on the importance of essential fatty acids, medical evidence that oil contributes to arterial damage, and olive oil companies sponsoring scientific studies of the Mediterranean diet, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate fact from fiction when it comes to information about oil.

Let’s Look at Some Facts about Fats

Healthy fats play an important role in our well-being. They help keep our skin and hair healthy, facilitate the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K,  provide insulation for our bodies, and play a pivotal role in brain development. Most non-hydrogenated vegetable oils are predominantly comprised of mono and poly-unsaturated fats, which, in small amounts, can help to reduce inflammation. They also provide us with the essential fatty acids that cannot be made by our bodies; fats that are important for both cognitive and metabolic function.

However, excess fat consumption of any kind is associated with a number of health problems, including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Oil provides 100% of its calories from fat, making it one of the richest dietary sources of both fat and calories (especially if you’re avoiding animal products.) This, combined with the fact that it is a liquid, can make it incredibly easy to consume in excess.

What to do?

There are ways to benefit from the healthy aspects of oil, without tipping the scales in the opposite direction. Here are a few simple guidelines that can help you achieve a balance.

Purchase organic cold-pressed oils, rather than refined oils. Cold pressed oils are produced without the addition of heat or dangerous chemical solvents, enabling them to retain more nutrients and their natural, full-bodied flavor. Flax oilhemp oil and olive oil are excellent choices which provide anti-oxidants, vitamin E, and essential fatty acids. Cold-pressed oils should be used raw rather than for cooking, as they have a low smoke point and will start to degrade when heated. Store them away from light in a cool, dry place, in order to prevent rancidity.

Think of oil as a condiment, rather than a cooking agent. For many oils, heating results in a loss of nutrients and the creation of free-radicals.  In order to avoid this, saute foods with water or vegetable broth, and dress your food with a small amount of oil after it has been removed from the heat. Toasted sesame oil is a fantastic option for dressing cooked foods; its intense flavor adds depth to dishes, even when used in very small quantities. If you do need oil for cooking, opt for coconut, peanut or sunflower oils, which have a high smoke point.

Limit the amount of oil you use in baked goods. A similar flavor and consistency can be achieved in cookiescakes and muffins by substituting unsweetened applesauce for all or half the oil in a recipe. For recipes that require margarine-type spreads, try substituting whole-nut butters such as almond or hazelnut. This will add fiber, protein and minerals to your sweet treats.

Ask for no oil, or oil on the side, when you eat out at restaurants. Liberal use of oil in restaurant and take-out foods is common. If the establishment is able to cater to requests, ask that your food be cooked without oil, or for the oil in your dressing on the side. This allows you to regulate the amount used, and helps to make the meal less heavy (meaning more room for dessert!)

Steer clear of palm oil. No, it’s not just because it’s high in saturated fat- palm oil is also very bad news for animals and the environment, which you can read about here. To make things easier, you can find a list of cruelty-free companies with palm-oil free products here.

Last but not least, try to consume oils in their natural state as part of a whole food, whenever possible. Oils that come in a bottle have been extracted from a whole plant food, such as an olive, sunflower seed or avocado. The oils and fats in these foods are part of a whole package, one that also includes fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. A lot of these nutritional components are not present in the oil that’s extracted, so you won’t always reap the benefits that you would from eating the whole food. Avocados, nuts, seeds, olives and coconut are all examples of whole-food sources of healthy fats.

Image Source: dahorsburgh/flickr