Oil, inflammatory? No way! I thought butter was the devil and oils were better.
If you are looking for ways to reduce inflammation in your body, you should take a look at the oils you use for cooking and dressing your salads. Some oils are anti-inflammatory, while other oils can cause inflammation and increase your risk of chronic disease.
Inflammation is the natural response of your immune system to fight infections, injuries, and toxins. It helps your body heal and protect itself from harm. However, when inflammation becomes chronic, it can damage your healthy cells and tissues, contributing to various health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, Alzheimer's, and cancer.
Chronic inflammation can be triggered by many factors, such as stress, smoking, pollution, lack of exercise, and poor diet. Certain foods can fuel inflammation by increasing the production of pro-inflammatory chemicals called cytokines in your body. These foods include processed meats, refined carbohydrates, added sugars, trans fats, and some vegetable oils. So make sure you’re having the highest quality foods and being mindful when choosing foods. But are all oils inflammatory?
Vegetable oils are derived from plants - fruits, seeds, grains, and nuts. They contain different types of fatty acids that affect your health in different ways. The main types of fatty acids are:
- Monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which are found in olive oil, avocado oil, almond oil, and peanut oil. MUFAs are anti-inflammatory and can lower your cholesterol levels and improve your heart health.
- Saturated fatty acids (SFAs), which are found in coconut oil, palm oil, butter, and animal fats. SFAs are not as bad as once thought, but they can raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol levels if consumed in excess. They also have a high smoke point, which means they can withstand high temperatures without breaking down or oxidizing.
- Polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs), which are divided into two groups: omega-3s and omega-6s. Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and can lower your blood pressure, triglycerides, and inflammation markers. They are found in flaxseed oil, walnut oil, fish oil, and some fish. Omega-6s are essential for your health, but they can also be pro-inflammatory if consumed in excess or out of balance with omega-3s. They are found in corn oil, soybean oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and most other vegetable oils.
One of the major reasons an oil is classified as “bad” is due to the ratio between omega-6s to omega-3s. Most vegetable oils contain too much omega-6s and not enough of the omega-3s. The ideal ratio of omega-6s to omega-3s is between 1:1 and 4:1, but the average American diet has a ratio of about 16:1. This imbalance can cause chronic inflammation and increase your risk for many chronic diseases.
Another problem with some vegetable oils is that they are highly processed and refined, which means they lose their natural antioxidants and nutrients. They also undergo chemical treatments that make them more stable and shelf-stable, but more prone to oxidation and rancidity. Oxidized oils can generate free radicals that damage your cells and DNA and activate the processes for aging.
Some of the worst inflammatory oils are:
- Corn oil
- Soybean oil
- Sunflower oil
- Safflower oil
- Canola oil
- Any hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oil
These oils are high in omega-6s and low in omega-3s. On top of that they also have a low smoke point, and you’ll find these in a lot of fried or baked packaged goods in health food aisles. Navigating the grocery store just got a lot easier now that you know what to avoid!
What is smoke point and why does it matter?
The smoke point of an oil is the temperature at which it starts to smoke and break down into harmful compounds. When an oil reaches its smoke point, it loses its flavor and nutritional value. It also produces acrolein, a substance that irritates the eyes and throat. Moreover, it generates free radicals that cause oxidative stress and inflammation in your body. So you're adding back in free radicals you are trying to remove through all your other healthy choices.
The smoke point of an oil depends on its type and quality. Generally speaking, the more refined an oil is, the higher its smoke point is. However, refining also strips away the beneficial antioxidants and phytochemicals that protect the oil from oxidation.
The smoke point of an oil also varies depending on how you store it and how often you use it. Exposure to light, heat, air, and moisture can lower the smoke point of an oil over time. Reusing an oil multiple times can also degrade its quality and increase its acidity.
Therefore, it is important to choose an oil that has a high enough smoke point for the cooking method you are using. For example:
- For stir-frying at very high temperatures (above 375°F), you need an oil that has a smoke point above 400°F. Suitable options: avocado oil, ghee, and refined coconut oil.
- For baking, roasting, or sautéing at moderate to high temperatures (between 325°F and 375°F), you need an oil that has a smoke point between 350°F and 400°F. Suitable options: olive oil, unrefined coconut oil, peanut oil, and sesame oil.
- For dressing, drizzling, or dipping at low to no heat, you can use any oil that has a smoke point below 350°F. Suitable options: flaxseed oil, walnut oil, and extra virgin olive oil.
Which oils are essential for an anti-inflammatory diet and how to use them?
The most essential oils for an anti-inflammatory diet are those that are rich in monounsaturated fats and omega-3s. These anti-inflammatory oils can help balance your omega-6 to omega-3 ratio, lower your inflammation levels, and protect your cells from oxidative damage. Some of the best oils for an anti-inflammatory diet are:
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Flaxseed oil
- Walnut oil
Olive oil is one of the healthiest oils you can use. It is high in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, such as polyphenols and vitamin E. It can lower your blood pressure, cholesterol, and inflammation markers. It can also protect your brain and heart from aging and disease. Make sure you follow the principles of the mediterranean diet though, it’s easy to get carried away and have too much olive oil, negating the health benefits by adding unnecessary calories and putting you into a higher omega 6 ratio.
The oils you use for cooking and dressing can have a significant impact on your inflammation levels and overall health. As you can see some oils are anti-inflammatory, while others are pro-inflammatory. To follow an anti-inflammatory diet, stick with olive, avocado, coconut, flax and walnut oils. But remember to limit your intake of oils.