This week, the American Heart Association (AHA) answered the question once and for all with a formal statement detailing the ten key features of a heart-healthy approach to eating. You've probably heard most of them before: Eat plenty of fruits and veggies, choose whole grains, opt for unprocessed foods when possible, and limit alcohol consumption—among others. But the organization also advised using "liquid non-tropical plant oils such as olive or sunflower oils" when it comes time to whip up a heart-healthy meal.
Lisa Moskovitz, RD, CDN, CEO of NY Nutrition Group and author of The Core 3 Healthy Eating Plan, agrees that there's nutritional clout behind the AHA's recommendation. "Although you would think anything to do with the tropics is a good thing, in this case, tropical oils such as coconut or palm oil are not always the most superior choice," says Moscovitz. "That's because these widely used fats are higher in pro-inflammatory saturated fats." Too much saturated fat can increase the amount of LDL cholesterol in your blood, which can also raise your risk of stroke and heart disease.
However, this doesn't mean there's not room for other types of oil like coconut or canola in a healthy diet. It just means that olive and sunflower will give you the most bang for your buck—known in the nutrition community as 'nutrient-density'—when it comes to heart health (due to some gold-start heart health benefits, which we'll get to in just a sec). Moskovitz also adds that if you're ever confused about which oils are highest in saturated fats, you can just look at the texture. "When your oils are more solid at room temperature they typically contain higher amounts of saturated fat, which increases artery-clogging LDL cholesterol," she says. So consider that trick next time you're scratching your head wondering what to buy at the grocery store.
Below, Moskovitz gives us the 411 on the health benefits of both olive and sunflower oil. Plus, when you should use each one based on their smoke points.
The health benefits of cooking with olive oil
Olive oil gets its heart-healthy reputation from its high concentration of monounsaturated fatty acids, a healthy type of fat that may help lower the risk of heart disease. One 2014 study of 63,867 women and 35,512 men—all of whom were free of heart disease, cancer, and other types of chronic illness at the advent of the research—found that those who consumed half a tablespoon of olive oil per day experienced a 15 percent lower risk of having cardiovascular disease. Plus, they also had 21 percent lower risk of having coronary heart disease. But the benefits of olive oil go beyond the heart.
"Aside from being heart-healthy, extra-virgin olive oil provides antioxidants that fight inflammation caused by normal daily stressors, dietary habits, and environmental exposures," says Moskovitz. "Excess inflammation can impair the immune system, digestive system, hormonal harmony, and metabolism." So yes, you could say there's a lot to love about olive oil.
Here, a dietitian takes a deep dive into the health benefits of olive oil:
The health benefits of cooking with sunflower oil
"Sunflower oil offers a great source of vitamin E which acts as an antioxidant that can protect against certain types of cancers and fight inflammation," says Moskovitz. Spoiler alert: Studies have also linked eating foods with high amounts of vitamin E to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
Because sunflower oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids, which can be semi-inflammatory, Moskovitz recommends balancing out your fats by eating omega-3-rich foods (think: salmon, tuna, walnuts, and flax seeds) that have anti-inflammatory effects.
When to use each "non-tropical" oil
Olive and sunflower oils are generally pretty interchangeable, but they do have different smoke points. Meaning, the temperature at which the oil starts to smoke and lose its health benefits. "While sunflower oil is a high-heat oil, olive oil can't handle the heat quite as much," says Moskovitz. "Use olive oil for light sautéing, baking, in sauces, as marinades, or as a dressing or dip." However, if you're going for a higher-heat dish—like, say, stir-fry, chicken, or steak—you might need to switch over to sunflower to maintain the nutritional values of your oil.
But again, it's worth noting that, while olive oil and sunflower oil are winning the heart-healthy race, variety is (please excuse the incoming cliché) the spice of life. "When it comes to incorporating oils, variety is best so mix it up between olive oil, sunflower oil, avocado oil, and so on. The more variety of food groups you consume, the more nutrients your body advantageously absorbs," says Moskovitz. Bear that in mind as you're staring down the cooking oil section at the grocery store.
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