If you stir-fry vegetables in canola oil and drizzle extra-virgin olive oil over salads, you're already loading up on healthy fats and antioxidants. "But just as runners experiment with different sports-nutrition products to optimize performance, we should experiment with different oils to optimize health and make food fun," says sports dietitian Dina Griffin, R.D. She explains eating a variety of oils—in moderation, of course—can help your body absorb fat-soluble vitamins and reduce the risk of developing heart disease, stroke, and high blood pressure. These six standbys (and potential new favorites) contain an ideal mix of healthy fats while also providing a kick of flavor.
Light, buttery avocado oil is rich in monounsaturated fat. Studies show decreasing saturated and trans-fat intake while increasing monounsaturated fat intake can lower LDL, or so-called "bad cholesterol." It can also reduce the risk of heart disease and bone fractures, says sports dietitian Cassie Dimmick, R.D. She adds that the plentiful phytochemicals found in avocado oil may lessen UV-induced cellular damage—good news for runners who log their miles in the summer sun.
Avocado oil has the highest smoke point of any plant oil, making it ideal for high-heat cooking, but its mild flavor is just as delicious drizzled over finished dishes.
Like avocado oil, canola is rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fat. It has a light, neutral flavor and the least amount of saturated fat of all cooking oils, says sports nutritionist Barbara Lewin, R.D., who recommends using it instead of butter and shortening. One tablespoon contains 14 percent of your daily need for vitamin E, which helps reduce free-radical damage. "Vitamin E is not in a lot of fruits and vegetables," says Dimmick. "So a heart-healthy source like canola oil is a good way to get it into your diet."
Save money by buying canola oil in bulk. When stored in a cool, dark cupboard, it's shelf-stable for about a year, even after being opened.
Rich, slightly peppery-tasting extra-virgin olive oil (which consists mostly of monounsaturated fat) is minimally processed, so it retains extremely high levels of antioxidants, including vitamin E and a compound called oleocanthal. A 2005 study published in the journal Nature found that this compound has anti-inflammatory properties similar to ibuprofen; researchers believe that eating olive oil in moderation may help reduce inflammation in the body over time.
When exposed to light and air, antioxidants in extra-virgin olive oil can start to break down. To preserve its health benefits, store the oil in a dark glass container or tin in a cool, dark place.
Flaxseed oil, which comes from the seed of the flax plant, is a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fat. In fact, it contains more inflammation-reducing omega-3s than fish oil and is one of the few vegetarian sources of the nutrient. "Research shows that eating a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can actually reduce the need for nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen," says Lewin. "It can help alleviate and possibly prevent joint pain and prevent exercise-induced asthma."
Flaxseed oil goes rancid quickly, so store it in the refrigerator. Heat diminishes its omega-3s. Use it solely in cold preparations like salad dressings.
Nutty sesame oil consists of nearly equal parts mono-and polyunsaturated fats and may have a positive effect on both your blood sugar and blood pressure. In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, patients with diabetes and high blood pressure used sesame oil as their sole cooking oil for 45 days. The oil reduced the participants' blood pressure and blood sugar to nearly normal levels. The researchers believe the effect is likely due to the oil's high level of lignans, compounds that can act as antioxidants.
Sesame oil's intense flavor means runners can use it sparingly. "Just a little drizzle makes your food taste great while helping keep the calories down," says Dimmick.
Aside from flaxseed oil, walnut oil is one of the few concentrated plant sources of omega-3 fatty acids. A Penn State study published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that omega-3s in walnuts and walnut oil help reduce cholesterol levels and the body's biological response to stress. People who have extreme responses to stress are at higher risk for heart disease, so eating walnuts and walnut oil over time may help reduce the risk factors for developing the disease.
Opened walnut oil lasts for six to 12 months. To prevent it from going rancid, store it in the refrigerator or in a cabinet away from heat.
How to freshen up seasonal meals with the healthiest oils: