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The Good Oils

The health message about oils has not changed and is very simple. Stick to olive oil or canola oil.

Olive oil is loaded with monounsaturated fatty acids, which do not raise blood cholesterol levels. It also is a good source of vitamin E and polyphenols, which act as antioxidants, reducing the oxygen-related damage to the vascular system.

Canola oil, on the other hand, has loads of monounsaturated fatty acids in the form of oleic acid. This acid has been shown to reduce blood cholesterol levels, and it may lower LDL, or "bad," cholesterol levels without changing "good" HDL levels. Also, canola oil is high in two essential polyunsaturated fatty acids that our bodies can't make: alpha-linolenic acid and linolenic acid.

Alpha-linolenic acid appears to lower blood triglyceride levels. It also may reduce platelet aggregation and increase blood clotting time, both of which are important to people at risk of heart disease and stroke.

Oils to Avoid

Simply put, avoid vegetable oils that are high in omega-6 fatty acids, such as regular vegetable oil, corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil.

Good Spreads

Until the recently, there really were no healthy spreads. Butter is too high in cholesterol for people who are at risk of heart disease; most margarine is made from trans fatty acids. In the 1980s, some manufacturers put out special, watered-down versions of spreads that had lower overall calorie content, but they tasted like it.

Then came spreads made from olive oil, wood pulp (Benecol) and soybeans (Take Control), which include chemicals that actually help your heart's health.

"Spreads like Benecol, which are made from plant stanol esters, are lower in trans fat than regular margarine and have been shown to lower the risk of heart disease," says Kendall. They especially help people taking statin drugs to lower their blood cholesterol levels. "But," she adds, "they are more expensive, too, so if you are at risk of heart disease, they may be worth the price."

Kendall suggests doing what the Italians do -- put olive oil on your bread. Or, you could make what she calls "better butter."

Blend one part olive or canola oil with one part butter," Kendall says. It makes a softer spread and dilutes the cholesterol with monounsaturated fats.

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