Amidst all the debate over how saturated fat and Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids (PUFAs) differentially affect our health, we often forget about monounsaturated fats (MUFAs). These are almost universally tolerated, if not loved. Vegans and carnivores alike consume them on a regular basis. You find them in nuts and seeds alongside PUFAs. You find them in animal fats alongside saturated fats. In most healthy diets monounsaturated fats feature prominently. They can’t really be avoided. But they’re an afterthought in most nutrition plans. Probably because they’re uncontroversial.
Let’s change that. Today, I’m going to explain why you should be eating more monounsaturated fat if you aren’t already.
1. It’s surprisingly stable
Saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fats are defined by their molecular structure. When we talk about “oxidized fatty acids,” we’re talking about oxidation of the carbon atoms that lie between double bonds. MUFAs, with their one double bond, are theoretically vulnerable to oxidation—but it rarely actually happens. The literature shows that MUFA-rich oils, like olive and avocado, are highly resistant to heat damage during cooking. This means that the oil does not go rancid and cause inflammation, it actually protects from inflammation!
2. It makes mitochondria function better
Mitochondria are almost everything. Cellular power plants whose design provide ATP (how energy is made for our body). They regulate overall metabolism. The more mitochondria we have and the better they work, the more energy we’re able to consume, utilize, and produce. They’re quite essential.
They’re also sensitive to oxidative stress if they’re not built with the right materials. Mitochondria whose membranes contain high levels of PUFAs are less stable, more prone to oxidative damage, and function worse than mitochondria with MUFA-rich membranes. We need our mitochondria to work if we’re to enjoy good health and a strong metabolism, and MUFAs make that possible.
3. It’s a primary constituent of many healthy foods
We eat foods, not nutrients, remember. And by choosing foods high in monounsaturated fat, in a roundabout way you’ll be choosing foods high in many important nutrients.
Consider macadamia nuts. Buttery, sweet, associated with many health benefits. A favorite treat of mine is salted, dry-roasted mac nuts in Greek yogurt with a drizzle of raw honey. “Salted”? Yep. Try it.
The avocado: Everyone’s favorite “healthy fat.” A rich source of potassium, half an avocado can reduce the inflammatory load of a big meal.
The almond: A surprising source of prebiotic fiber and repository for vital minerals, the almond is mostly known for abundance of linoleic acid. It has PUFAs, sure, but MUFAs are still the primary fatty acid present in the almond.
The olive, whose MUFA-rich oil reduces inflammation in heart disease patients.
Consider the egg yolk. Easiest source of choline around. Great source for folate, selenium, B12, and complete protein. Go pastured and it gets even better. Did you realize that MUFA is the predominant fatty acid in your average egg yolk? Eat up!
Consider grass-fed beef. It’s higher in nutrients, lower in cruelty.Turns out that the grass-fed stuff is higher in MUFAs and stearic acid, a type of saturated fat that turns to MUFAs in the body!
4. It supports immune function
Research has found the pivotal role of oleic acid in immune function: it improves wound healing, increases the elimination of pathogens, and is associated with protection against autoimmune diseases.
5. It protects against diabetes
Several lines of evidence point to a protective effect.
Observational studies consistently show an inverse relationship between MUFA consumption and diabetes.
Controlled trials find that MUFA-rich diets improve glycemic control and lipid profiles in type 1 diabetics. In type 2 they reduce insulin resistance.
Animal trials show that MUFA reverses the tendency of inflammatory cytokines to depress insulin production, making it vital for type 1 diabetics for whom depressed insulin production is a major issue.
6. It has anti-tumor mechanisms
Oleic acid plays a crucial role in the anti-carcinogenic cellular process. It even combines with a bioactive protein found in milk to form anti-tumor compounds! Animal studies indicate a number of anti-cancer properties inherent to oleic acid.
7. It’s great for blood lipids
Even as controversy over the importance of the lipid profile rages across the nutritional world, one thing remains certain: whatever stance you take, monounsaturated fat has a neutral or positive effect. It increases HDL and reduces LDL. It reduces triglycerides and increases the HDL: total ratio. It does this in healthy people, diabetics, overweight, and heart-stricken disease people.
8. It’s good for your joints
MUFA has been shown to increase the resilience of cartilage exposed to stressful conditions! Omega-6 PUFAs have the opposite effect. Bottom line, MUFAs are anti-inflammatory in all accounts.
Oleic acid, the primary MUFA, isn’t magic. It’s not a “superfood.” It’s the work horse of the fatty acids. It’s the foundation. It’s the one constant amidst all healthy diets. Meat eaters get tons of it through animal fat. Vegetarians get it through dairy and eggs. Vegans get it through nuts and oils. We all carry a lot of it in our adipose tissues, if not by weight then by percentage. Our bodies even convert certain saturated fats, like stearic acid, into oleic acid; that’s how much our bodies need it.
It’s time we pay closer attention to MUFAs and make sure it is an abundant part of our diet!
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