For many of us, a good portion of our days revolve around food.
We meal plan for three meals a day. Moms with tiny people clinging to their ankles often find themselves IN the kitchen more than OUT, feeding those bottomless (and growing) tummies that are never quite full.
Those working outside the home must plan for lunch and dinner in advance in order to keep budgets in check and make the most of those few precious evening hours, preferably not sequestered by the stove and sink.
Yet at the same time, every piece of food we put in our mouths is an opportunity to nourish our bodies.
Meat, fruits, vegetables, fruits and grains come to mind first when we think of “nourish,” but fat should be included in that list. Truth be told, we eat fat so often that we don’t realize how often we really do!
I explored the benefits of saturated fat in the first post of this Truth About Fats series. Saturated fat is the strongest structured fat and the best for us. However, we still find nutrients that our bodies need in unsaturated fats.
There are two types of unsaturated fats: Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated. There are some distinct differences between the two making one better to eat and one better to avoid.
But as with all fats, the amount you consume and how you cook (or don’t cook) with it makes the difference in it being helpful or harmful.
The Truth about Monounsaturated Fats
Monounsaturated fats have one link open in their structure meaning these type of fats are usually strong, but not as strong as saturated fats. This single exposed link prevents the molecules from binding in tight together giving free radicals a chance to gain access.
Free radicals cannot function on their own and look for a weakness in other molecules to attach too. They attack healthy cells and can trigger mutations in tissue, blood vessels, and skin.
This bend in their structure also causes monounsaturated fats to be usually liquid at room temperature. Olive oil is liquid when left on the counter, but solidifies in the refrigerator.
Monounsaturated fats are similar to saturated fats in that they don’t go rancid easily and for the most part, are safe for cooking. Our bodies even make some monounsaturated fats from the saturated fats we consume.
When not used correctly, monounsaturated fats can become oxidized or rancid and become even more susceptible to free-radicals. This means we should use extra care when using monounsaturated fats in our food and especially while cooking.
Since extreme heat is most often to blame for damaging oils (and allowing free-radicals to intervene), monounsaturated fats should not be used at high temperatures (like deep frying). The monounsaturated fats listed below come from natural sources like the saturated fats listed here [link to saturated fats], so consumption is fine as long as we’re mindful of the temperatures.
Olive oil (75% monounsaturated), almond oil (62% monounsaturated), macadamia oil (60% monounsaturated), cashew oil (58% monounsaturated) and peanut oil (45% monounsaturated) are good sources of monounsaturated fat.
The Benefits of Monounsaturated Fats
Monounsaturated fats found in nature – from olives (and oils), avocados, nuts (and oils) and seeds – are primarily made up of the omega-9 fatty acid oleic acid. The body uses oleic acid to control glucose and insulin levels. It also aids with blood circulation by removing plaque and debris in blood vessels.
The oleic fatty acid found in nature also helps to increase levels of HDL (the healthy cholesterol), which in turn lowers the level of LDL (the unhealthy cholesterol). Oleic acid tells our body to produce more antioxidants, whose job is to trap icky free-radicals.
One word of caution: don’t go all crazy trying to eat a bunch of monounsaturated fat just because “omega-9” sounds super healthy. Yes, the omega-9 fatty acid is important and yes, it has great benefits, but our bodies can actually make it from our intake of omega-3’s and omega-6’s. Omega 3 and 6 are in PLENTY of foods. Eating in it food reduces the concern with consuming too much of one and not enough of the other.
Your best bet is to eat the foods that naturally contain oleic acid (like those mentioned above) for the OTHER nutritional benefits they offer (like fiber and protein), but don’t go out of your way to eat them solely for the omega-9.
Eating whole foods gives you a balance of nutrients that work together to fuel your body in the best way.
Common Monounsaturated Fats
Here’s a list of common fats and oils that contain high amounts of monounsaturated fat. Remember that monounsaturated fat can be good when eaten in their natural state and not heated to high temperatures.
Olive oil: 75%
Avocado oil: 70%
Almond oil: 62%
Macadamia oil: 60%
Cashew oil: 58%
Peanut oil: 45%
Where to Buy Quality Monounsaturated Fats
Olive oil is one of the best sources for monounsaturated fats. Using Extra Virgin Olive Oil will give you the least refined oil and the most stable fats. Since the olive oil trade is not highly regulated, it is hard to know if your olive oil is pure. You can read more about testing your olive oil here.
Quality olive oil can be expensive. Price shopping for the rock bottom price, like I teach in Grocery Budget Bootcamp, is the best way to keep costs down.
If you shop online, Amazon has some good options on olive oil and avocado oil as well as Thrive Market. I trust the brands at Thrive Market to be solid sources. Amazon is a little riskier unless you are sure to research the brand you buy.