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The healthiest cooking oils

Are some oils really healthier than others? Which oils should you use for everyday cooking, and which ones should be used sparingly?

Figuring out which oils to buy can be confusing, but a few key rules should guide your choices, says Corey Tolbert, RD, LD, a licensed and registered dietitian at Cancer Wellness at Piedmont.

“There are definitely some oils that are better than others,” Tolbert says. A key consideration should be fat content: Oils with more unsaturated fat are typically better for you.  

Smart oil choices can make all your cooking healthier. Here are Tolbert’s tips on what to look for when selecting oils for nutrition and flavor.

The healthiest oils for everyday use

Canola oil is a sensible option for everyday cooking, Tolbert says. Low in saturated fat, canola oil is also higher in omega-3 fatty acids (which decrease inflammation). Olive oil is another good choice.

If you’re looking for something a little out of the ordinary, she says, you may want to try walnut oil, sesame oil, grapeseed oil or avocado oil. These options tend to be a bit pricier.

“But they’ve got a lot of great properties,” she points out, including the omega-3 acids.

A good rule of thumb is to use oils with fewer than four grams of saturated fat per tablespoon, Tolbert says. Vegetable oils are almost always a good choice, because they boost HDL (“good” cholesterol) and lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol).

No matter which oils you choose, stay mindful of how you’ll apply heat to them in cooking.

Some options, like extra virgin olive oil, have lower smoke points. That means they’ll begin to break down under high heat, and you’ll notice smoke and a burning smell. 

“If you’re sautéing, that’s not as big of a deal,” Tolbert says. “If you’re wanting to pan fry or deep fry something, you’re going to want an oil with a higher smoke point.” 

Is coconut oil actually good for you?

Although coconut oil has many uses, Tolbert doesn’t recommend using it frequently in your cooking. Coconut oil is high in saturated fat, making it a less healthy choice for regular consumption.

“As dietitians, we always tell people that if you’re going to use that, use it very sparingly,” she says.

There are some claims that coconut oil raises HDL, but research isn’t clear. Like coconut oil, Tolbert says, palm oil is also high in saturated fat and should mostly be avoided.

Should people with chronic illness avoid certain oils?

If you have a chronic illness or heart disease, you should avoid saturated fat, Tolbert says. Stay away from oils that are partially hydrogenated, which you’ll find in shelf-stable products like peanut butter.

Margarine is another item to avoid. Regular butter is better for you than a processed food like margarine.

“I always tell people to eat as clean as possible,” Tolbert says.

The benefits of expensive oils

Searching for even better oils? High-quality products tend to be manufactured in small batches, meaning they can be pricier than mass-produced ones.

But if you’re looking for deeper flavors that can add more to your meals, these small-batch oils may be the way to go—at least once in a while.

“They may not have as big of a yield, but they’re more of a premium product,” Tolbert says. “If you’re going to pay more, you’re going to get a better product.”

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