Cooking with Oils for Better Brain Health by Annie Fenn, MD
This weekend I reached out again to Annie Fenn, MD (@brainhealthkitchen), culinary instructor and founder of the Brain Health Kitchen Cooking School. I was interested to further our discussion about what oils she considers to be brain-friendly, and which ones she avoids.
What are the best oils to cook with? And is it okay to cook with olive oil?
The most brain-friendly cooking oils are rich in healthy fats (the mono- and polyunsaturated ones) and low in saturated fat. It’s a bonus if they also contain polyphenols, powerfully antioxidant compounds, as found in high quality olive oil and pecan oil. I use extra virgin olive oil in my cooking school for almost everything, including baking cakes and cookies. Olive oil is one of the brain healthy food groups in the MIND diet study which showed that a brain healthy diet can reduce Alzheimer’s risk by as much as 53%.
It’s fine to cook with olive oil as long as you don’t heat it past its smokepoint (which ranges from 325 to 470ºF) — the temperature in which wisps of smoke arise from the oil. Too much heat will damage olive oil’s delicate polyphenols and cause its healthy fats to break down. For high heat cooking, like stir-frying, I favor avocado oil, which has a much higher smokepoint than olive oil. I also use an avocado/olive oil blend (from California Olive Ranch) that has the flavor of olive oil but a smokepoint closer to that of avocado oil. Walnut, pecan, and hazelnut oils are rich in healthy fats but can go rancid quickly. I use butter and ghee very sparingly and always look for butter made from cows fed only grass (for a higher omega-3 content.)
I avoid oils with an unfavorably high omega-6/omega-3 fatty acid content: sesame, peanut, sunflower, grapeseed, safflower, palm, soybean, rice bran, and any hydrogenated oils. I almost never use canola oil; although it has more healthy fats than unhealthy ones, many brands are heat processed.
What about coconut oil?
When it comes to brain healthy cooking, I am not a fan of coconut oil. First, it’s very high in saturated fats, about 92%, or about 14 grams of saturated fat per tablespoon. A diet high in saturated fats ups your odds of getting Alzheimer’s. And, many coconut oils are processed at temperatures that create inflammatory substances. The scientific data does not support the healthy claims you often read about coconut oil — that it prevents Alzheimer’s or lowers blood cholesterol. In fact, I reviewed 8 clinical trials in which coconut oil raised blood cholesterol (LDL, triglycerides, and total cholesterol) when compared to olive oil. It gets confusing because you will read that researchers are experimenting with giving coconut oil to Alzheimer’s patients. That’s because a brain riddled with Alzheimer’s can no longer metabolize glucose as its primary source of energy and it prefers to use fats as fuel. Investigators are looking at giving Alzheimer’s patients a special formulation of coconut oil that is 100% medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) to see if their symptoms improve. When it comes to avoiding getting Alzheimer’s in the first place, I advise using coconut oil sparingly, if at all.
Annie Fenn, MD
Annie Fenn is a board-certified physician, culinary instructor and trained chef. She practiced obstetrics and gynecology with a specialty in menopausal health for over 20 years in Jackson, Wyoming, where she lives.
Dr. Fenn switched gears in 2010 to practice medicine from a different angle—teaching her patients how to eat and cook with whole foods. After attending culinary school in Italy, Mexico and the Culinary Institute of America, she taught dozens of cooking classes in her community and wrote about food, health and sustainability for numerous media outlets. In 2017, she launched Brain Health Kitchen, the only cooking school of its kind to focus exclusively on preventing Alzheimer’s and dementia.