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Monounsaturated Fats and Health

Rida Wali, MS, RD
December 29, 2020

When thinking of "fats", people often automatically link it with "unhealthy". However, there are different types of fats that play different roles in health, and not all of them are bad. This article will introduce you monounsaturated fats and how they impact health.

What is Monounsaturated Fats?

Monounsaturated fats are composed of monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which contain one carbon double bond. They exist as 10-32 carbons in length. The most common monounsaturated fatty acid is oleic acid, 18 carbons long (18:1). Another MUFA exists in a lower quantity is erucic acid, a 22 carbon fatty acid. Other monounsaturated fatty acids exist but are present in food in negligible quantities.

Common Food Sources

Common food sources of oleic acid include olive oil, canola oil, avocados, almonds, etc.

Of note, oleic acid is also present in foods such as beef tallow, lard, and palm oil and makes up at least 30% of the total fatty acids in those sources. It is also present in soybean and corn oil and makes up 20% or more of those oils. Thus, oleic acid is the most abundant fatty acid in the typical American diet, about 93% of total MUFA intake.

Oleic acid can be synthesized by the body, and hence serum levels are not an indicator of dietary intake.

Erucic acid is commonly found in rapeseed, kale, broccoli, and other plants from the Brassicaceae family. However, genetic modification of canola oil produced from rapeseed has eliminated erucic acid from canola oil and the typical American diet.

Health Impacts & Dietary Recommendations

Current guidelines do not recommend a specific amount of intake from monounsaturated fats. They do, however, recommend intake of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats instead of saturated fats and animal fats in the diet while limiting total fat intake to 20-35% of total calories.

With regards to health implications, the impact of MUFAs on cardiovascular disease outcomes is unclear. Consumption of MUFAs is beneficial for overall health when it replaces carbohydrate and saturated fat in the diet but not when it replaces polyunsaturated fat intake.

Since olive oil is a major food source of oleic acid, it is essential to note that the Mediterranean eating pattern, which includes olive oil intake at approximately 20%, has been shown to have positive health impacts. However, since the Mediterranean eating pattern also emphasizes vegetables, fruits, omega 3 fatty acid rich foods, low dairy, nuts, and moderate wine intake, it is difficult to determine the individual impact of olive oil on health outcomes.

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020 also recommend an eating pattern focused on varied and nutrient-dense foods. They recommend consuming vegetables, fruits, lean meats, low-fat dairy, whole grains, legumes, fatty fish, nuts, and seeds. Limit intake of processed foods with added fats, salt, and sugar.

If you have any question about fat intake or need any help with incorporate monounsaturated fats into your diet, feel free to send a message via iHealth Unified Care App to talk to your dietitians.