What Is Monounsaturated Fat?

Fresh green salad with olive oil, mozzarella, mixed nuts, and dry fruits

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Monounsaturated fats, also known as monounsaturated fatty acids or MUFAs, are dietary fats that come from plant sources and can provide health benefits. MUFAs remain liquid at room temperature but begin to thicken when chilled. Along with polyunsaturated fats, monounsaturated fats are considered healthy fats.

By contrast, saturated and trans fats—both of which are regarded as unhealthy fats by nutrition experts—will remain solid at room temperature. These fats can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke by promoting the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels. For this reason, many health experts recommend that we replace the saturated and trans fat in our diets with monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fat.

How Do Monounsaturated Fats Compare?

MUFAs differ from saturated fats in their molecular structure. The prefix "mono" refers to the fact that they only have one double bond in their fatty acid chain. As a rule, the fewer double bonds there are in the fatty acid chain, the less tightly packed they are and the lower the melting point. With only one double bond, monounsaturated fats have a lower viscosity (thickness) and a lower melting point, meaning they turn liquid at lower temperatures.

Saturated fats have single bonds at every link in the chain, resulting in a higher melting point and higher viscosity. This means more fatty acid chains can fit together in a small space. These chains can increase the amount of bad cholesterol in the blood and clog arteries.

Polyunsaturated fats have multiple double bonds, placing them somewhere in between in terms of both their structure and physical properties.

Trans fats, also known as trans-unsaturated fatty acids, are (usually) artificially produced oils in which hydrogen is added to create more double bonds. However, some animal based foods contain small amounts of natural trans fat. The USDA recommends limiting trans fats as much as possible.

The Food and Drug Administration has taken steps to remove artificial trans fats in foods. As of January 1, 2020 food manufacturers can no longer add partially hydrogenated oils (trans fat) to foods.

Health Benefits

Monounsaturated fats aid in cell regulation and help the body absorb vitamin D (a nutrient that regulates calcium levels), build stronger bones, and support immune function.

Reduces Risk of Heart Disease and Stroke

Monounsaturated fats can help decrease low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in your blood. Keeping your LDL level low reduces your risk for heart disease and stroke.

A large review of studies also confirmed that diets higher in MUFAs are associated with a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease. The report's authors suggest that guidelines should be provided for the intake of both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fat.

Other published reports suggest that the focus should be on informing people about the differences between dietary fats—namely healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated and less healthy saturated and trans fats—rather than emphasizing a reduction of total dietary fat. This would help people make informed decisions about which fats to consume.

The quality of fat is much more important than the quantity when when reducing the risk of cardiovascular diseases.

Lowers Risk of High Cholesterol

Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance. It is needed to maintain good health but in the right amounts. Too much can lead to high blood cholesterol, which has health consequences.

High amounts of LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol cause fatty deposits known as plaque to accumulate in your blood vessels, which can result in a heart attack or stroke in addition to other health issues. Plaque buildup can be a result of genetics, but more often is caused by an unhealthy diet, such as one full of saturated and trans fats from animal products and packaged desserts. 

Instead, some research shows that when substituted for saturated fats, monounsaturated sources of fat can help reduce LDL cholesterol while HDL cholesterol levels remain unaffected.

Helps Reduce Inflammation

The Mediterranean Diet is touted for its heart-healthy benefits and is ranked number one by the U.S. News and World Report in healthy diets for diabetes, heart health, and overall. It is high in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated fats, unlike a standard American diet. 

A 2021 review shared evidence that diets high in saturated fats can cause chronic inflammation and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. Diets abundant in monounsaturated fats, on the other hand, are "favorable to an anti-inflammatory state" and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes.

May Aid in Diabetes Management

A study published in Diabetes Care compared the effects of a calorie-controlled high-monounsaturated fatty acid diet and low-fat high-carbohydrate diet on body weight and glycemic control in men and women with type 2 diabetes.

They found that both diets provided comparable beneficial effects on body weight, body composition, cardiovascular risk factors, and glycemic control. Researchers concluded that the high-MUFA diet could be considered an alternative to a low-fat high-carb diet in patients with type 2 diabetes.

Other studies have determined that diets high in monounsaturated fats may provide some benefits in the prevention of type 2 diabetes.

May Improve Certain Lifestyle Factors

A very small study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition investigated the role of monounsaturated fat in the lifestyle habits of young adults. They compared two groups of men and women (14 adults in one group and 18 in the other) in their 20s and 30s who ate diets either high in saturated fat (a typical Western diet) or high in monounsaturated fat (a Mediterranean diet).

They found that the diet high in monounsaturated fat was associated with less anger, better overall mood, and increased physical activity. Participants in the Mediterranean diet group also benefited from an increase in resting energy expenditure.

Foods Rich in Monounsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated fats come primarily from plant sources, such as nuts and seeds. However, many foods provide more than one kind of fat. For example, olive oil contains monounsaturated fat (73%), polyunsaturated fat (10.5%), and saturated fat (14%). As a basis for comparison, butter contains about 21% monounsaturated fat.

To ensure a healthier intake of fats, look for foods with a high percentage of monounsaturated fats, such as:

  • High oleic sunflower (84%)
  • Hazelnut oil (78%)
  • Hazelnuts (77%)
  • Olive oil (73%)
  • Avocado oil (72%)
  • Avocados (71%)
  • Almonds (70%)
  • Mustard oil (60%)
  • Canola oil (59%)
  • Macadamia nuts (59%)
  • Pecans (59%)
  • Peanuts (46%)
  • Peanut oil (46%)

While regular sunflower and safflower oils are not good sources of monounsaturated fat, some of these seeds have been specially bred to increase their monounsaturated content. These oils will usually be labeled "high-oleic" safflower or sunflower oil.

Replacing Unhealthy Fats

There are numerous ways to swap out less healthy saturated and trans fats in your diet for healthier monounsaturated fats, including:

  • Cooking with olive oil instead of butter
  • Replacing processed snack foods with nuts
  • Reducing intake of animal proteins in favor of plant-based alternatives
  • Swapping butter on toast for an avocado spread or nut butter
  • Topping your meals with various seeds, such as pumpkin and sesame

Dietary Intake

While consumers have avoided fat for years, it has become increasingly apparent that the type of fat, not just the total amount of fat, makes a big difference in overall health. We need fat in our diets to support important body functions. Many vitamins, for example, need fat in order to be dissolved and absorbed into the intestines. Dietary fat also helps keep hair and skin healthy, while body fat insulates the body and protects the internal organs.

As a result, the focus and recommendations regarding dietary fat have shifted. Many health organizations now propose that fat shouldn't be considered "bad" and the focus should be on avoiding excess consumption of the less healthy types.

There is no specific intake recommendation provided for monounsaturated fat. The USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025 suggest adopting healthy eating patterns that limit saturated and trans fats. Other health organizations have provided some guidelines for the intake of MUFAs as a percentage of total daily calorie intake. Most provide a recommendation for monounsaturated fat intake in the 10% to 20% range.

There are some guidelines that can help you make healthy decisions regarding fats to include to limit in your diet. According to the USDA:

  • Consume about 20-35% of your daily calories from fat, limiting intake of saturated and avoiding trans fat.
  • Consume less than 10% of calories per day from saturated fats. These include butter and beef fat as well as certain plant-based oils such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil.

Lastly, remember that all fats provide nine calories per gram, whether they are monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, or saturated. Protein and carbohydrate provide four calories per gram. If reaching or maintaining a healthy weight is part of your goals, keeping your calories within a certain range may help you achieve that. Therefore understanding portions of fat and their calorie equivalents could be useful.

While there is no specific guideline for the specific intake of monounsaturated fat, current USDA guidelines suggest that we adopt a healthy eating pattern that limits consumption of saturated and trans fat in favor of polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and oils.

Calculating Your Fat Intake

To determine your specific fat intake range in grams, first, multiply the number of calories you consume each day by 20% and then by 35%. This is your target fat calorie range. For example, an adult who consumes 2,000 calories per day would have a target fat calorie range of 400 to 700 calories.

Once you have a calorie range, you can determine the target number of fat grams. Since fat contains nine calories per gram, divide the fat-calorie target numbers by nine to determine your daily fat grams. For a 2,000-calorie diet, the recommended daily fat intake would be between 44 to 78 grams. Remember, this is the target amount from all fat sources, not just monounsaturated fat.

To ensure that you remain well within your daily target, pay close attention to food nutrition labels when shopping. Or plan in advance by running your shopping list through a handy online nutrition calculator. You can even use it when preparing recipes to calculate the percentage of fat and saturated fat per serving in relation to the total calories.

A Word From Verywell

Even though all types of fats have the same caloric impact, the type of fat you're consuming matters when it comes to your health. It may seem daunting at first, but making the shift from saturated fats to monounsaturated fats is not as scary as it seems. Start by making simple swaps in your everyday cooking and watching your intake of animal products.

Choosing healthier forms of fat, like monounsaturated fat, will help you to stay full and satiated throughout the day and enjoy satisfying meals while gaining health benefits for long-term health.

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Article Sources
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