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What are monounsaturated fats and why are they good for you?

Monounsaturated fats began to catch the attention of researchers in the mid-1980's when they discovered that monounsaturates had many of the same heart-protective features as polyunsaturates, but, in addition, they had the ability to improve control of blood sugar in persons with non-insulin dependent diabetes. Interest in monounsaturates also developed along with recognition of the Mediterranean diet and its health benefits, since olive oil was such a key component of the Mediterranean diet and contained about 75% monounsaturates.

Monounsaturated fatty acids (abbreviated MUFAs) are unique fats found in a wide variety of foods. Many plant oils consist of 20-50% MUFAs, including sunflower, corn, soybean, peanut, palm, sesame, and cottonseed oil. Canola oil is especially high in MUFAs at 62%, and olive oil is even higher at 75%. Animal foods also contain MUFAs, including butter (30%), chicken fat (47%), and lard (47%). Among the vegetables, avocados are also unusual in their high-MUFA content (59%).

The chemistry of MUFAs is unique, and while they are less stable than saturated fats, they are also more stable than polyunsaturated fats. This intermediate status may give them certain health advantages not shared by the saturated fatty acids (SFAs) or polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). This unusual chemistry of MUFAs is easy to see in the form that an extremely high-MUFA food like olive oil takes at different temperatures. At room temperature, a high-MUFA food like olive oil will stay liquid, the natural form for all high-PUFA foods. At refrigerator temperature, however, a high-MUFA food like olive oil will start to solidify, the natural form for all high-SFA foods.

Given the heart-protective and blood-sugar stabilizing effects of MUFAs, many researchers believe that we may benefit from an everyday diet that is higher in MUFAs than PUFAs. While I am not aware of any research that suggests a complete "green light" on high-MUFA foods, I've seen research suggesting that up to 15% of total calories from MUFAs might be beneficial. If you were eating 2,000 calories per day, this amount would be the equivalent of about 33 grams of MUFAs. That amount is contained in about 3 tablespoons of olive oil, and leaves you with plenty of opportunity for incorporating this World's Healthiest Food into your diet, along with other MUFA-rich foods including sesame seeds, peanuts, and avocados.

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