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Bodybuilders tend to shun fats, but the truth is, they do need some fat in their diets. Healthy oils can be a valuable source of essential fatty acids (EFAs), as well as protective phytochemicals. Don't deny yourself the benefits of these elixirs; not only do quality oils add flavor to your food, they also help you build a strong body and stick with a healthy diet for the long term. You can have 20 to 25 percent of your total daily calories from fat, but that should be mainly unsaturated fat, which includes flavorful, heart-healthy oils.
The best oils are organic, unrefined and expeller or cold-pressed (made without added heat). The more refined the oil, the worse it is for you. Refining removes phytosterols, the chemicals that help protect against heart attack and some cancers. Shopping for quality oil can be as complicated as selecting wine, but these tips on how to use popular oils will help guide you.
1. OLIVE OIL
The one oil you should never be without. This dietary and culinary superstar can help lower bad LDL cholesterol and provide protection against high blood pressure and blocked arteries.
Uses: You can use olive oil as a substitute for butter with a loaf of crusty French bread. Olive oil can also replace most oils when a recipe calls for baking, frying or sautéing. It's available in three grades – virgin, extra-virgin and pure – but only pure with a higher smoke point should be used for frying. Virgin and extra-virgin varieties are higher-grade oils. Their delicate nature – and considerable expense – means they're best drizzled over pasta, vegetables or salad. The term "extra light" for olive oil refers to color, not calories. Note: Store away from light and heat.
Nutrition: 1 tablespoon, 120 calories, 13.5 g fat (2 g saturated, 1.5 g polyunsaturated, 10 g monounsaturated)
2. FLAXSEED (FLAX) OIL
One of the best and most practical ways to supply Omega-3 and Omega-6 essential fatty acids. Flaxseed oil has very little taste (although some people would argue that it has a definite taste—an unpleasant one). You can find it at any health-food store.
Uses: Best used in salad dressings or mixed into a protein smoothie or post-workout shake. Don't use it for cooking or frying because heat will destroy the EFAs in this heart-healthy food.
Nutrition: 1 tablespoon, 120 calories, 14 g fat (1 g saturated, 10 g polyunsaturated, including omega-3 fatty acids, 3 g monounsaturated)
Note: Flaxseed oil needs to be refrigerated and tightly covered in a dark container. Throw it out if it tastes even slightly bitter, since it can quickly become rancid.
3. SESAME OIL
Sesame oil comes in two types: a light, very mild Middle Eastern variety and a darker Asian type pressed from toasted or roasted sesame seeds. The darker the oil, the more pronounced the sesame aroma and flavor.
Uses: Oriental sesame seed oil has a low smoke point, so it's primarily used as a flavor enhancer rather than for frying. Use it sparingly in Chinese chicken salad. For a heartier cold salad, toss with a little rice vinegar into cooked Chinese noodles and crunchy vegetables; for a complete meal, add cooked chicken for protein.
Nutrition: 1 tablespoon, 120 calories, 14 g fat (2 g saturated, 7 g polyunsaturated, 5 g monounsaturated)
4. CANOLA OIL
A good source of heart-healthy alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), this is a lightly flavored oil. Avocado, corn and peanut oil are similar.
Uses: Good in salads and cooking. This refined multi-purpose oil generally has a higher smoke point, making it suitable for frying or any other cooking techniques that require high heat. When frying, keep the oil below 350 degrees F and avoid reusing oil that has reached the smoke point to avoid developing trans fatty acids in the food.
Nutrition: 1 tablespoon, 124 calories, 14 g fat (1 g saturated, 5 g polyunsaturated, 8 g monounsaturated)
5. SAFFLOWER OIL
High in polyunsaturates and antioxidant Vitamin E, this versatile oil has only a slight flavor. Soybean and sunflower oil are similar.
Uses: Vinaigrette or other salad dressings. Ingredients such as chili peppers, herbs or spices can easily enhance the flavor.
Nutrition: 1 tablespoon, 120 calories, 14 g fat (1 g saturated, 11 g polyunsaturated, 2 g monounsaturated)
This famed cooking spray has minimal calories for times when you need to go very low fat. Even though it lists 0 calories, it actually has a minuscule 0.266 gram per one-third second of spray time. Original variety has canola oil; olive oil, butter flavor and other variations are available. You can also spray your own oil with a mister.
Uses: For nearly fat-free sautéing and frying. Also to coat baking pans for easy release. Shake can before spraying.
Nutrition: One-third-second spray, 0.266 g, officially no calories or fat.
7. CHILI OIL
This Asian standard adds max flavor with few calories. The hot flavor comes from an infusion of ground red chilies. It's strong, so use sparingly. A little goes a long way.
Uses: You can use it for stir-fry and other cooking, or as a condiment to add zip to seafood or other dishes.
Nutrition: 1 teaspoon, 45 calories, 5 g fat.
Vincent H. Steinman (Chef Vinny), a graduate of the Scottsdale (Arizona) Culinary Institute, has created fine cuisine at many restaurants and resorts, including The Boulders Resort and The Phoenician in Arizona. A prolific food writer, he is now supervising chef for the San Diego (California) Community College District. His favorite food to work with is chocolate.