Science and Research

Is Monounsaturated Fat a Bad Fat?

November 27, 2023

There tends to be quite a bit of confusion about “fats” and how we consume them. It is generally assumed that all fats are bad and to maintain a healthy lifestyle you should eliminate all fats from your diet. 

But, this isn’t true! In fact, there are four different types of fat, and some of them can even be good for you. 

Restricting fat intake may help you lose weight and reduce your risk of heart disease and high cholesterol, but these benefits are generally thanks to fewer of the wrong calories rather than less fat alone.

Your body actually needs fat as part of a healthy diet, and completely eliminating fats from your diet can be dangerous. Without enough fat in your diet to meet dietary guidelines, you can experience dry rashes, vitamin deficiencies, a weaker immune system, and even lose some of your hair.

Instead of completely removing fat from your diet, focus on eating more of the healthy fats. Start with monounsaturated fat. 

What is Monounsaturated Fat?

Monounsaturated fat is a type of dietary fat that is considered healthier than other fats. It is a healthy form of fat that offers various benefits when consumed in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

Chemically, monounsaturated fats have one double bond in their fatty acid structure, which leads to a specific molecular configuration. This characteristic helps to distinguish them from saturated fats, which lack double bonds, and polyunsaturated fats, which have multiple double bonds.

How Does Monounsaturated Fat Affect You? 

The primary benefit of eating foods that contain monounsaturated fat is increasing your good cholesterol levels.

Despite its poor reputation, cholesterol is an important nutrient. Your body uses the soft, waxy substance to create cell membranes, vitamin D, several hormones, and more. Cholesterol is key in brain function, too. 

There are two types of cholesterol: low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). While the science is evolving, LDL cholesterol is generally considered "bad", and HDL cholesterol "good".

Elevated LDL cholesterol levels can create fatty deposits and plaque that build up in blood vessels. Having narrowed or restricted arteries is one of the primary risk factors for heart disease, stroke, and heart attack. High cholesterol is also associated with high blood pressure. Not only is high blood pressure dangerous for your heart and blood vessels, but it can even lead to erectile dysfunction

It is important to note that while monounsaturated fats are considered healthy, they are still calorie-dense. Therefore, moderation is key to maintaining a healthy balance in your diet. It's recommended to replace unhealthy fats (saturated and trans fats) with monounsaturated fats rather than adding extra calories to your diet.

How Much Monounsaturated Fat Should You Eat? 

Monounsaturated fat is generally better for you than saturated and trans fats, but moderation is key. Although it’s considered a “healthy” fat, remember that monounsaturated fat still contains more than twice the calories of carbs and proteins. 

Eating healthy fats can still cause you to put on weight because it means more calories. A well-balanced diet calls for most people to get between 20 and 35 percent of their daily calories from fat. That’s about 44 to 77 grams of fat each day, which is fairly light. The more monounsaturated fats used to make up that 30 percent, generally the healthier the diet.

Clinicians generally recommend your second-highest fat form be polyunsaturated fats, as these are also considered healthy fats. You should limit saturated fat intake and eliminate trans fat from your diet.

Why Do You Need To Eat Fat?

Fat, carbohydrates, and protein are the essential macronutrients of a healthy diet. For your body to function, you need to get these nutrients from your food.

Fat is vital because your body easily breaks it down to create energy. One gram of fat contains nine calories, about twice as much as carbohydrates or protein. Since fat has so many calories per gram, it’s practical for your body to store energy in the form of fat. That’s why fat gets such a bad rap when it comes to weight gain. 

Fat also plays a vital role in helping your gut efficiently digest and absorb vitamins from food. The vitamins A, D, E, and K are critical for daily bodily function, and they're all fat-soluble. This means that they can only be properly absorbed with the presence and help of fatty acids. 

Fat helps with brain and nervous system function.

Fat helps insulate and protect your internal organs. Adipose tissue (aka body fat) wraps around your organs, bones, and muscles and helps keep them warm when you’re exposed to intense cold. These tissues also provide a layer of cushion that can absorb impact and protect them from damage.  

What are the Different Types of Fat?

There are three types of natural fat and one artificial or altered fat. The key characteristic that separates these fats is chemical composition:

  • Fats with two or more double bonds are considered polyunsaturated fats.
  • Fats with exactly one double bond are considered monounsaturated fats.
  • Fats with zero double bonds are considered saturated. 

The last type of fat is trans fat. Trans fat is created through a process called hydrogenation. Normally unsaturated fats such as vegetable oil are infused with hydrogen to extend shelf life and change their consistency or flavor. Trans fats are often in fried foods and preserved or highly processed foods. They're not great for your body, and if you can cut out trans fats entirely, all the better.

What Foods Have Monounsaturated Fats?

The easiest way to get more monounsaturated fat in your diet is to use healthier cooking oils like olive oil, safflower oil, avocado oil, and peanut oil. Remember that monounsaturated fat is a liquid at room temperature, and oils will be some of the best sources. 

The best sources of monounsaturated fat are oils derived from plants or seeds such as:

  • Avocados are a rich source of monounsaturated fat, particularly oleic acid – which is the most common type of monounsaturated fat found in food.
  • Olive oil is another notable source of monounsaturated fats, particularly in extra virgin olive oil. It is commonly used in cooking, dressings, and sauces.
  • Nuts and seeds: Almonds, cashews, pistachios, peanuts, and sesame seeds are examples of nuts and seeds that contain monounsaturated fats.

The simplest way to increase your monounsaturated fat intake is to adopt a Mediterranean diet. The Mediterranean diet revolves around the eating habits of those living in countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea, which focus on lean meats, legumes, whole grains, and lots of whole fruits and vegetables.

Most Americans follow a typically Western diet, where only 36 percent of fat intake is monounsaturated, on average, and calories often come from high glycemic index carbohydrates. The average proportion of monounsaturated fats in the Mediterranean diet is nearly 60 percent. 

A Mediterranean diet entails eating lots of vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts, beans, whole grains, and olive oil. You should be eating plenty of these foods anyway, but the emphasis on fish or lean meats is where the Mediterranean diet differs substantially from the Western diet. 

Oily fish like sardines, mackerel, and salmon are a nutrient-rich protein source containing plenty of polyunsaturated fats. Omega-6 and omega-3 fats are abundant in these sources and can help lower your triglycerides. Substituting fish for beef, pork, or poultry can help to lower cholesterol and triglycerides. 

Learn More About Healthy Fats

Monounsaturated fat is generally considered a healthy fat when eaten in moderation, and this fat should be the primary source of fat in your diet. Common sources of monounsaturated fat include most nut oils and olive oil oil.

Fat is an essential part of a healthy and balanced diet. Eat a few dozen grams daily for normal body function: the trick is to eat the right types of fat. 

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