Q: In light of all the oily food I’ll be consuming over Chanukah, can you explain how oils can be healthy if they contain so much fat?
A: Ah, Chanukah, the Festival of Oil—I mean, Light. Because oil and light are intertwined in this holiday, many of us feel duty-bound to partake of the oily goodies presented to us from Rosh Chodesh Kislev and onward. In truth, oils can be very healthy. Most oils are a good source of unsaturated fat, which is the type of fat that can help improve cholesterol levels. There are two types of unsaturated fats:
Polyunsaturated fats: These fats lower total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and triglycerides (another type of fat found in your blood). The catch is these fats tend to lower HDL (good cholesterol) levels as well. Despite this, they have an overall protective effect against heart disease.
Monounsaturated fats: These fats lower LDL cholesterol and triglyceride levels without lowering HDL levels. This is why they’re often emphasized in heart-healthy diets. Monounsaturated fats may also help prevent blood clots, and in patients with type 2 diabetes, they improve insulin resistance if used instead of polyunsaturated fats.
Other types of fat can be very unhealthy for your heart. Both saturated fats (found in animal foods like butter, whole milk, and meat) and trans fat (found in margarines, fried foods and commercial baked goods) increase risk of heart disease and should be minimized in a heart-healthy diet.
Oils actually contain a combination of fats, but one type will predominate. For example, olive, canola, and peanut oil are rich in monounsaturated fat, while corn, cottonseed, and soybean oils are mainly polyunsaturated fat. And although the majority of oils are mostly unsaturated, a handful of oils—including palm kernel oil and coconut oil—contain saturated fat. It’s a good idea to limit your intake of the latter oils.
However, despite their heartening benefits, oils do have calories—a lot of calories. One tablespoon of any oil has roughly 120 calories. When you use oil liberally in cooking, it’s easy for those calories to add up fast—which can create a weight-control problem. For a balance of calorie control and health benefits, the American Heart Association recommends that less than 25 to 35 percent of your total calories per day come from fat—and most of that should be from unsaturated fats. Saturated fat should account for less than 7 percent of your calories, while trans fat should comprise less than 1 percent. For a 2,000-calorie-per- day diet, that amounts to 55 to 78 grams of total fat per day, with no more than 15 grams of saturated fat and 2 grams of trans fat.
You’ll probably be eating latkes, sufganiyot and many other fried foods during the chag, so please be aware that the process of frying food in vegetable oil at a high temperature creates trans fat too. The good news is that normal kitchen cooking is likely to produce only a small amount of trans fat, but if you reuse the oil over and over (which you might do if you are deep -frying), that trans fat will build up to unhealthy levels. So change your cooking oil often and, in general, minimize frying.
Our discussion would be incomplete without mentioning fish oils. Though not part of the Chanukah tradition, fish oils hold potential health benefits because they contain a specific unsaturated fat: omega-3 fats. While omega-3s don’t impact cholesterol levels as much, they have other effects that may lower risk of heart disease, such as reducing triglyceride levels and slowing the growth of plaques in the arteries. The American Heart Association recommends two servings (3 ½ ounces each) of fatty fish (e.g., salmon, herring, albacore tuna) per week. You can also take fish oil supplements but check with your healthcare provider first.
This Chanukah, be kind to your heart. Enjoy your sufganiyot—but in moderation!
Shira Isenberg is a registered dietitian and writer. She has a master’s degree in public health nutrition from Hunter College in New York.