A Guide to Monounsaturated Fat Sources and Their Benefits

Why this type of fat is a better choice for your diet

foods high in monounsaturated fats
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Monounsaturated fats are considered to be "good" fats alongside polyunsaturated fats. Monounsaturated fats that remain liquid at room temperature but will begin to thicken when chilled.

By contrast, saturated and trans fats—both of which are regarded as "bad" fats—will remain solid at room temperature. These are the fats that can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke by promoting the buildup of plaque in your blood vessels.

Monounsaturated fats aid in your good health in the several ways:

  • They can help lower your "bad" low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol in your blood. 
  • When consumed in place of saturated and trans fats, they can help people with type 2 diabetes better control their blood sugar.
  • Monounsaturated fats aid in cell regulation and contain high levels of vitamin D, a hormone that regulates calcium levels, builds stronger bones, and supports immune function.

Structure

Monounsaturated fats, also known as monounsaturated fatty acids, differ from saturated fats in their molecular structure. The prefix "mono" refers to the fact that they only have one double bond in the fatty acid chain. (Double bonds are simply the bond between pairs of electrons and atoms that are harder to break.)

As a rule, the fewer double bonds there are in the fatty acid chain, the higher the melting point. With only one double bond, monounsaturated fats have a lower viscosity (thickness) and a higher melting point (meaning they turn liquid at lower temperatures).

By contrast, saturated fats have double bonds at every link in the chain, resulting in a low melting point and high viscosity. Polyunsaturated fats have fewer double bonds than saturated fats but more that monounsaturated fats, placing them somewhere in between in terms of both their structure and physical properties.

Trans fats, also known as trans-unsaturated fatty acids, are artificially produced oils in which hydrogen is added to create more double bonds. 

Sources of Monounsaturated Fats

All fats provide nine calories per gram, whether they are monounsaturated, polyunsaturated, or saturated. Moreover, the fats and oils we consume are not comprised of just one type of fatty acids but several. For example, about half the fat is beef is monounsaturated while the other half is saturated.

To ensure a healthier intake of fats, you need to consume foods with the highest percentage of monounsaturated fats. These include:

  • Macadamia nuts (80 percent monounsaturated fat)
  • Olive oil (77 percent)
  • Hazelnuts (77 percent)
  • Avocados (71 percent)
  • Almonds (70 percent)
  • Canola oil (59 percent)
  • Pecans (59 percent)
  • Peanuts (46 percent)
  • Peanut oil (46 percent)

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 o sunflower oil and can contain up to 81 percent monounsaturated fat.

Recommended Intake

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, insulates the body, and protects the internal organs. As such, fat shouldn't be considered bad, only the excess consumption of fat (most especially "bad" fats). 

There are some rules that can help guide your healthy intake of fat. According to the 2015 to 2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans:

  • You need to avoid all trans fats. Period.
  • You should limit your daily intake of healthy fat to 20 percent to 35 percent from all sources, including food and oils.
  • You should limit your intake of oils to 27 grams per day, or roughly five tablespoons.
  • Less than 10 percent of calories per day should come from saturated fats. These include butter and beef fat as well as certain plant-based oils such as coconut oil and palm kernel oil.
  • To further reduce your heart disease risk, limit saturated fats to less than seven percent of your total daily calories. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that would be 140 calories or 16 grams of saturated fats per day.

Calculating Your Fat Intake

To calculate your daily fat grams, multiply the number of calories you consume each day by 20 to 35 percent. This is your target fat-calorie range. For an adult on a 2,000-calorie diet, the target fat-calorie range would be between 400 to 700 calories.

Remembering that fat contains nine calories per gram, divide the fat-calorie range 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. This is the amount you would consume from all sources.

To ensure that you remain well within your daily target, pay extra close attention to food nutrition labels when shopping. Better yet, plan in advance by running your shopping list through this 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.

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