Healthy oils at home and when eating out

photo of an assortment of different types of plant-based oils in bottles against a light background

Some people may be cautious when it comes to using oils in cooking or with their food. Eating fat with meals conjures thoughts of high cholesterol and, well, getting fat. The fact that some fats are labeled as “bad” adds to the confusion and misconception that all fats are unhealthy.

But that isn’t the case.

“It’s important to consume oils,” says Shilpa Bhupathiraju, assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and assistant professor of nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Oils and fats contain essential fatty acids — omega 3s and 6s, in particular — that are part of the structure of every single cell in the body, says Walter Willett, professor or epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. They’re the building blocks of hormones, help decrease inflammation, and lower bad cholesterol and blood pressure. Oil also provides taste and satiety.

The key is knowing the right kind to use. It’s easier when you’re cooking at home, a little trickier when you’re eating out and you can’t control every step in the process. But it’s not just about picking the healthiest oils. They play a part in a healthy diet when they’re part of an eating plan that minimizes processed foods, simple carbohydrates, and sugar.

Healthy and not-so-healthy oils

In general, Willett says that the healthiest oils are liquid and plant-based. The one that comes to mind first is olive oil, and for good reason. “It’s stood the test of time,” he says. It helps lower blood cholesterol and provides antioxidants, and extra virgin is the ideal version, as it’s the first pressing and least refined.

After that, corn, canola, sunflower, safflower, and soybean all fall into the healthy column. The last one wasn’t always considered a healthy choice because it used to be hydrogenated, but now it’s in a natural state and a good source, says Willett.

On the unhealthy side, there’s lard, butter, palm oil, and coconut oil. The commonality is that they come in a semi-solid state and have a high level of saturated fat. The consumption of that fat increases LDL cholesterol (the bad kind), and has been associated with increased risk for cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Willett says part of the challenge is cultural. Northern European tradition is based on eating animals and animal fats, and those fats, like butter and lard, come in solid form. The Southern European approach, like the Mediterranean diet, is based on plant-based oils, particularly olive.

While saturated fats provide none of the above-mentioned health benefits, they don’t have to be avoided entirely, just minimized to 5% of your diet, says Willett. For example, if you typically consume 2,000 calories a day, only 100 should come from saturated fats.

Eating out versus at home

If you’re eating at home and you’re using healthy oils, there is less concern about consuming the wrong fats or too much. Whether you’re frying, sautéing, or dressing a salad, you’re in control of all the factors. Using too much oil isn’t such a concern, Bhupathiraju says, since people usually regulate their intake through knowing when something will taste too oily.

Frying, in general, is often a worry, but it’s not necessarily unhealthy. It’s more about what’s being fried. Cheese, a saturated fat, wouldn’t be a great choice, but zucchini wouldn’t be bad, as Bhupathiraju says.

The concern with fried foods, and eating out in general, is what kind of oil is being used and how. With deep fryers, if the oil isn’t regularly changed, it repeatedly gets reheated and trans fats are created. These can produce inflammation in the body, which can lead to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and contributes to the breakdown of cell membranes.

The easiest move is to avoid eating all fried foods. But Willett says that, again, that’s not always necessary. The use of trans fats was prohibited in 2018, so it’s likely a restaurant is using a healthier oil. Even so, eating fried foods occasionally isn’t too harmful.

Focus on maintaining a healthy diet, with good oils

Willett says that people get the majority of their calories from two sources — fats and carbohydrates — and “what’s important is both should be healthy,” he says.

When you eat healthy carbs and fats, you don’t have to worry about how much you’re eating of either. “The ratio doesn’t make much difference. They’re both healthy,” he says. The focus in on overall eating. A healthy diet can consist of mostly whole grains like brown rice, steel-cut oats, wheat berries, and quinoa. The less something is milled and made into a powder, the more slowly it will release into the body, preventing sudden spikes in blood sugar.

While low-fat diets had some popularity in the 1990s, low-fat products aren’t healthier. Willett says that research has shown that low-carb diets are more effective for weight loss than low-fat ones, and that low-fat diets are not more effective for weight loss than higher-fat ones.

The best approach to eating well is the science-backed recommendation of having lots of colors on your plate. Orange, yellow, green, and red foods supply various antioxidants and phytochemicals that may be protective to the body. When you compose your diet like this, chances are you’ll eat more slowly and consume fewer empty calories, Bhupathiraju says.

“Enjoy fats,” Willett says. “Good olive oil is good for you. It will help you enjoy the salad and make the eating experience and eating of vegetables more enjoyable.”

Finding balance: 3 simple exercises to steady your steps

A healthy life requires balance — and not just in a metaphorical sense. Being able to maintain physical balance is crucial to performing everyday activities from going up and down the stairs to reaching for an item on a shelf at the supermarket. But while many people squeeze in a daily walk and may even do some strength training exercises a few times a week, exercises to build balance don’t always make the workout list. They should, according to experts.

As you get older, the physical systems inside your body that help you maintain your balance aren’t as responsive as they were when you were younger. Maintaining balance is actually a complex task for your body, requiring coordinated action from not only your muscles, but also your eyes, ears, tendons, bones, and brain.

In addition, health problems that become more common with age, such as inner ear disorders, decreased sensation in feet, or postural hypotension (low blood pressure with standing) may leave you feeling unsteady.

Practicing exercises designed to improve your balance can help keep you upright and prevent a fall that causes injuries.

Building balance three ways

You may wonder, what exactly is a balance exercise?

Standing on one foot? Yes, that qualifies. It falls into a category called static balance exercises. These improve your balance when you’re standing still. But a good balance workout should also include dynamic exercises, which are aimed at building balance when you are moving. Ideally, you should try to incorporate a few of these exercises two or three times a week.

Below are three simple exercises that you can get use to get started. The first is a static balance exercise and the other two are dynamic balance exercises. For additional ideas, read this blog post on the BEEP program.

Tandem standing

Reps: 1
Sets: 1 to 3
Intensity: Light to moderate
Hold: 5 to 30 seconds

Starting position: Stand up straight, feet hip-width apart and weight distributed evenly on both feet. Put your arms at your sides and brace your abdominal muscles.

Movement: Place your left foot directly in front of your right foot, heel to toe, and squeeze your inner thighs together. Lift your arms out to your sides at shoulder level to help you balance. Hold. Return to the starting position, then repeat with your right foot in front. This completes one rep.

Tips and techniques:

  • Pick a spot straight ahead of you to focus on.
  • Tighten your abdominal muscles, buttocks, and inner thighs to assist with balance.
  • Keep your shoulders down and back.

Make it easier: Hold on to the back of a chair or counter with one hand.

Make it harder: Hold the position for 60 seconds; close your eyes.

Braiding

Reps: 10 to each side
Sets: 1 to 3
Intensity: Light to moderate
Tempo: Slow and controlled

Starting position: Stand up straight, feet together and weight evenly distributed on both feet. Put your arms at your sides.

Movement: Step toward the right with your right foot. Cross in front with your left foot, step out again with the right foot, and cross behind with your left foot. Continue this braiding for 10 steps to the right, then bring your feet together. Hold until steady. Now do 10 steps of braiding to the left side of the room. This completes one set.

Tips and techniques:

  • Maintain neutral posture throughout.
  • Look ahead of you instead of down at your feet.
  • Don’t turn your feet out.

Make it easier: Take smaller steps.

Make it harder: Pick up your pace while staying in control of the movement.

Rock step

Reps: 10 on each side
Sets: 1 to 3
Intensity: Moderate to high
Tempo: 2–2–2–2

Starting position: Stand up straight, feet together and weight evenly distributed on both feet. Lift your arms out to each side.

Movement: Step forward with your left foot and lift up your right knee. Hold. Step back with your right foot and lift up your left knee. This completes one rep. Finish all reps with the left foot leading, then repeat by leading with the right foot. This completes one set.

Tips and techniques:

  • Tighten the buttock of the standing leg for stability.
  • Maintain good posture throughout.
  • Breathe comfortably.

Make it easier: Hold on to the back of a chair with one hand for support; lift your knee less.

Make it harder: Hold each knee up for a count of four.

Exercise photos by Michael Carroll